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Citizen science

File:Scanning the cliffs near Logan Pass for mountain goats (Citizen Science) (4427399123).jpg
Scanning the cliffs near Logan Pass for mountain goats as part of the Glacier National Park Citizen Science Program.

Citizen science (also known as crowd science, crowd-sourced science, civic science, volunteer monitoring or networked science) is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists. Formally, citizen science has been defined as "the systematic collection and analysis of data; development of technology; testing of natural phenomena; and the dissemination of these activities by researchers on a primarily avocational basis."[1] Citizen science is sometimes included in terms such as "public participation in scientific research" and participatory action research.[2]


The terms citizen science and citizen scientists entered the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014.[3] Citizen science is defined as scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions,[4] and citizen scientists, in the modern sense, are defined as "a scientist whose work is characterized by a sense of responsibility to serve the best interests of the wider community" or "'a member of the general public who engages in scientific work, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions'" an amateur scientist.[4]

Prior to the term entering the Oxford English Dictionary the "Green Paper on Citizen Science: Citizen Science for Europe" was published and gave a definition for citizen science, referring to "the general public engagement in scientific research activities when citizens actively contribute to science either with their intellectual effort or surrounding knowledge or with their tools and resources. Participants provide experimental data and facilities for researchers, raise new questions and co-create a new scientific culture. While adding value, volunteers acquire new learning and skills, and deeper understanding of the scientific work in an appealing way. As a result of this open, networked and trans-disciplinary scenario, science-society-policy interactions are improved leading to a more democratic research, based on evidence-informed decision making as is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or non professional scientists."[5]

Citizen science may be performed by individuals, teams, or networks of volunteers. Citizen scientists often partner with professional scientists to achieve common goals. Large volunteer networks often allow scientists to accomplish tasks that would be too expensive or time consuming to accomplish through other means.

Many citizen-science projects serve education and outreach goals.[6][7][8] These projects may be designed for a formal classroom environment or an informal education environment such as museums.

Citizen science has evolved over the past four decades. Recent projects place more emphasis on scientifically sound practices and measurable goals for public education.[9] Modern citizen science differs from its historical forms primarily in the access for, and subsequent scale of, public participation; technology is credited as one of the main drivers of the recent explosion of citizen science activity.[10]

Alternative definitions

Other definitions for Citizen Science have also been proposed. For example, Bruce Lewenstein of Cornell University's Communication and S&TS departments describes 3 possible definitions:[11]

  • The participation of nonscientists in the process of gathering data according to specific scientific protocols and in the process of using and interpreting that data.[11]
  • The engagement of nonscientists in true decision-making about policy issues that have technical or scientific components.[11]
  • The engagement of research scientists in the democratic and policy process.[11]

Scientists and scholars who have used other definitions include Frank von Hippel, Stephen Schneider, Neal Lane, Jon Beckwith, and Alan Irwin.[12][13][14][15] Other alternative terminologies proposed are "civic science" and "civic scientist."[16]

Further, Muki Haklay, offers an overview of the typologies of the level of citizen participation in citizen science, which range from 'crowdsourcing' (level 1) where the citizen acts as a sensor, to 'distributed intelligence' (level 2) where the citizen acts as a basic interpreter, to 'participatory science' where citizens contribute to problem definition and data collection (level 3) to 'extreme citizen science' which involves collaboration between the citizen and scientists in problem definition, collection and data analysis [17]

A 2014 Mashable article defines a citizen scientist as: ″Anybody who voluntarily contributes his or her time and resources toward scientific research in partnership with professional scientists."[18]

Related fields

Some projects, such as SETI@home, use the Internet to take advantage of distributed computing. These projects are generally passive. Computation tasks are performed by volunteers' computers and require little involvement beyond initial setup. There is disagreement as to whether these projects should be classified as citizen science.

The astrophysicist and Galaxy Zoo co-founder Kevin Schawinski stated: "We prefer to call this [Galaxy Zoo] citizen science because it's a better description of what you're doing; you're a regular citizen but you're doing science. Crowd sourcing sounds a bit like, well, you're just a member of the crowd and you're not; you're our collaborator. You're pro-actively involved in the process of science by participating."[19]

Compared to SETI@home, "Galaxy Zoo volunteers do real work. They're not just passively running something on their computer and hoping that they'll be the first person to find aliens. They have a stake in science that comes out of it, which means that they are now interested in what we do with it, and what we find."[19]

Citizen policy may be another result of citizen science initiatives. Johanna Varner (pen name SciCurious) writes: "If citizens are going to live with the benefits or potential consequences of science (as the vast majority of them will), it’s incredibly important to make sure that they are not only well informed about changes and advances in science and technology, but that they also...are able to...influence the science policy decisions that could impact their lives."[20]


In a research report published by the U.S. National Park Service, Brett Amy Thelen and Rachel K. Thiet mention the following concerns, previously reported in the literature, about the validity of volunteer-generated data:[21]

  • Some projects may not be suitable for volunteers, for instance when they use complex research methods or require arduous or repetitive work.[21]
  • If volunteers lack proper training in research and monitoring protocols, they are at risk of introducing bias into the data.[21]
  • Members may lie about data. This risk is even greater when bounties are awarded as an incentive to participate.[21]

The question of data accuracy, in particular, remains open. John Losey, who created the Lost Ladybug citizen science project, has argued that the cost-effectiveness of citizen science data can outweigh data quality issues, if properly managed.[22]

The medical ethics of internet crowdsourcing has been questioned by Graber & Graber in the Journal of Medical Ethics.[23] In particular, they analyse the effect of gremes and the crowdsourcing project Foldit. They conclude: "gremes can have possible adverse affects, and that they manipulate the user into participation."


"Citizen science" is a fairly new term but an old practice. Prior to the 20th century, science was often the pursuit of gentleman scientists, amateur or self-funded researchers such as Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Darwin.[24] By the mid-20th century, however, science was dominated by researchers employed by universities and government research laboratories. By the 1970s, this transformation was being called into question. Philosopher Paul Feyerabend called for a "democratization of science."[25] Biochemist Erwin Chargaff advocated a return to science by nature-loving amateurs in the tradition of Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Buffon, and Darwin—science dominated by "amateurship instead of money-biased technical bureaucrats."[26]

Amateur astronomy

Main article: Amateur astronomy
File:Telescope trailer 22.jpg
Amateur astronomers can build their own equipment, and can hold star parties and gatherings, such as Stellafane.

Astronomy has long been a field where amateurs have contributed throughout time, all the way up to the present day.[27]

Collectively, amateur astronomers observe a variety of celestial objects and phenomena sometimes with equipment that they build themselves. Common targets of amateur astronomers include the Moon, planets, stars, comets, meteor showers, and a variety of deep-sky objects such as star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae. Observations of comets and stars are also used to measure the local level of artificial skyglow.[28][29] One branch of amateur astronomy, amateur astrophotography, involves the taking of photos of the night sky. Many amateurs like to specialize in the observation of particular objects, types of objects, or types of events which interest them.[30][31]

The American Association of Variable Star Observers has gathered data on variable stars for educational and professional analysis since 1911 and promotes participation beyond its membership on its Citizen Sky website.[32]

Butterfly counts

Main article: Butterfly count

Butterfly counts have a long tradition of involving individuals in the study of the range of butterflies and their relative abundance. Two long-running programs are the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (started in 1976) and the North American Butterfly Association's Butterfly Count Program (started in 1975).[33][34] There are various protocols for monitoring butterflies and different organizations support one or more of transects, counts and/or opportunistic sightings.[35] eButterfly is an example of a program designed to capture any of the three types of counts for observers in North America. Species-specific programs also exist, with monarchs the prominent example.[36] Two examples of this involve the counting of Monarch butterflies during the fall migration to overwintering sites in Mexico:(1) Monarch Watch is a continent-wide project, while (2) the Cape May Monarch Monitoring Project is an example of a local project.[37][38]


Main article: Birdwatching

Citizen science projects have become increasingly focused on providing benefits to scientific research.[39][40][41] The Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1900, is an example of a long-standing tradition of citizen science which has persisted to the present day. Citizen scientists help gather data that will be analyzed by professional researchers.

Modern technology

Newer technologies have increased the options for citizen science.[42] Citizen scientists can build and operate their own instruments to gather data for their own experiments or as part of a larger project. Examples include amateur radio, amateur astronomy, Six Sigma Projects, and Maker activities.

File:Citizen Science Center NCMNS.jpg
Citizen Science Center exhibit in the Nature Research Center wing of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Video technology has enabled expanded citizen science.[citation needed] The Citizen Science Center in the Nature Research Center wing of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has exhibits on how to get involved in scientific research and become a citizen scientist. For example, visitors can observe birdfeeders at the Prairie Ridge Ecostation satellite facility via live video feed and record which species they see.

Since 2005, the Genographic Project has used the latest genetic technology to expand our knowledge of the human story, and its pioneering use of DNA testing to engage and involve the public in the research effort has helped to create a new breed of "citizen scientist." Geno 2.0 expands the scope for citizen science, harnessing the power of the crowd to discover new details of human population history.[43] This includes supporting, organization and dissemination of personal DNA (genetic) testing. Like Amateur astronomy, citizen scientists encouraged by volunteer organizations like the International Society of Genetic Genealogy have provided valuable information and research to the professional scientific community.[44][45]

With Unmanned aerial vehicles, further citizen science is enabled. One example is the ESA's AstroDrone smartphone app for gathering robotic data with the Parrot AR.Drone.[46]

Citizens in Space (CIS), a project of the United States Rocket Academy, seeks to combine citizen science with citizen space exploration.[47] CIS is training citizen astronauts to fly as payload operators on suborbital reusable spacecraft that are now in development. CIS will also be developing, and encouraging others to develop, citizen-science payloads to fly on suborbital vehicles. CIS has already acquired a contract for 10 flights on the Lynx suborbital vehicle, being developed by XCOR Aerospace, and plans to acquire additional flights on Lynx and other suborbital vehicles in the future.[47]

CIS believes that "The development of low-cost reusable suborbital spacecraft will be the next great enabler, allowing citizens to participate in space exploration and space science."[48]


The Internet has been a boon to citizen science, particularly through gamification.[42] One of the first Internet-based citizen science experiments was NASA's Clickworkers, which enabled the general public to assist in the classification of images, greatly reducing the time to analyze large data sets. Another example is Quantum Moves, a game developed by the Center for Driven Community Research at Aarhus University which uses online community efforts to solve quantum physics problems.[49][50] The solutions found by players can then be used in the lab to feed computational algorithms used in building a scalable quantum computer.

The internet has also enabled citizen scientists to gather data which will be analyzed by professional researchers. Citizen science networks are often involved in the observation of cyclic events of nature (phenology), such as effects of global warming on plant and animal life in different geographic areas,[51] and in monitoring programs for natural-resource management.[52][53][54] On BugGuide.Net, an online community of naturalists who share observations of arthropods, amateurs and professional researchers contribute to the analysis. By October 2014, BugGuide has over 808,718 images submitted by more than 27,846 contributors.[55]

File:Bubbles Within Bubbles.jpg
An NASA/JPL image from the Zooniverse's The Milky Way Project showing a hierarchical bubble structure.

The Zooniverse is home to the internet's largest, most popular and most successful citizen science projects.[56] The Zooniverse and the suite of projects it contains is produced, maintained and developed by the Citizen Science Alliance (CSA).[57] The member institutions of the CSA work with many academic and other partners around the world to produce projects that use the efforts and ability of volunteers to help scientists and researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them. A NASA/JPL picture to the right gives an example from one of Zooniverse's projects The Milky Way Project.

The website CosmoQuest has as its goal: "To create a community of people bent on together advancing our understanding of the universe; a community of people who are participating in doing science, who can explain why what they do matters, and what questions they are helping to answer.[58]

CrowdCrafting enables its participants to create and run projects where volunteers help with image classification, transcription, geocoding and more.[59] The platform is powered by PyBossa software, a free and open-source framework for crowdsourcing.[60]


Mobile technology has further boosted the opportunities for citizen science. Examples include the San Francisco project, the WildLab, iNaturalist, and Project Noah.[61][62][63][64] There are also smartphone apps for monitoring birds, marine wildlife and other organisms, and the 'Loss of the Night'.[65][66]


The first Conference on Public Participation in Scientific Research was held in Portland, Oregon in August 2012.[67] Citizen science is now often a theme at large conferences, such as the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.[68]

Since 2011, there has been an annual citizen cybersummit, hosted by the Citizen Cyberscience Centre in Geneva. The 2014 Citizen Cybersummit Conference was hosted in London in February 2014 and featured 'leading figures in citizen science and exploring the process of public engagement, outreach in citizen science'.

In January 2015, the ETH Zurich and University of Zurich hosted an international meeting on the "Challenges and Opportunities in Citizen Science".[69]

The next citizen science conference hosted by the Citizen Science Association was in San Jose, CA in February 2015 in partnership with the AAAS conference.[70]

See also


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  2. Hand, E. (2010). "Citizen science: People power". Nature 466 (7307): 685–687. PMID 20686547. doi:10.1038/466685a.  edit
  3. "Oxford English Dictionary List of New Words". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 13 September 2014. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Oxford English Dictionary". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 13 September 2014. 
  5. Socientize Project (2013-12-01) (2013). Green Paper on Citizen Science: Citizen Science for Europe - Towards a better society of empowered citizens and enhanced research (PDF). Socientize consortium. 
  6. Osborn, D. A. (2002). "Monitoring Rocky Intertidal Shorelines: A Role for the Public in Resource Management". California and the World Ocean 02 175. p. 57. ISBN 0-7844-0761-4. doi:10.1061/40761(175)57.  edit
  7. Brossard, D.; Lewenstein, B.; Bonney, R. (2005). "Scientific knowledge and attitude change: The impact of a citizen science project". International Journal of Science Education 27 (9): 1099. doi:10.1080/09500690500069483.  edit
  8. Bauer, M. W.; Petkova, K.; Boyadjieva, P. (2000). "Public Knowledge of and Attitudes to Science: Alternative Measures That May End the "Science War"". Science, Technology & Human Values 25: 30. doi:10.1177/016224390002500102.  edit
  9. Bonney, R.; Cooper, C. B.; Dickinson, J.; Kelling, S.; Phillips, T.; Rosenberg, K. V.; Shirk, J. (2009). "Citizen Science: A Developing Tool for Expanding Science Knowledge and Scientific Literacy". BioScience 59 (11): 977. doi:10.1525/bio.2009.59.11.9.  edit
  10. Silvertown, J. (2009). "A new dawn for citizen science". Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24 (9): 467–201. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2009.03.017.  edit
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 B. Lewenstein (8 June 2004). "What does citizen science accomplish?". Cornell University. Retrieved 16 September 2014. 
  12. Von Hippel, Frank (1991). Citizen scientist. New York: American Institute of Physics. ISBN 0-88318-709-4. 
  13. Beckwith, Jonathan R. (2002). Making genes, making waves: a social activist in science. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00928-2. 
  14. Irwin, Alan (1995). Citizen science: a study of people, expertise, and sustainable development. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-13010-7. 
  15. Neal Lane, "Remarks" at Panel Discussion on Future of Federal Funding for Science and Engineering, Rutgers University, April 8, 1996. Steve Schneider remarks at AAAS meeting, February 1997; see here [1].
  16. Clark, F.; Illman, D. L. (2001). "Dimensions of Civic Science: Introductory Essay". Science Communication 23: 5. doi:10.1177/1075547001023001002.  edit
  17. Haklay, Muki (2012) in Citizen Science and Volunteered Geographic Information: Overview and Typology of Participation. Crowdsourcing Geographic Knowledge. 2013, pp 105-122.
  19. 19.0 19.1 A. Williams (9 February 2009). "Crowdsourcing versus citizen science". Anthony D. Williams. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  20. J. Varner (8 January 2013). "Citizen Science, Citizen Policy". ECAST. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 Thelen, Brett Amy; and Thiet, Rachel K. (2008). "Cultivating connection: Incorporating meaningful citizen science into Cape Cod National Seashore's estuarine research and monitoring programs". Park Science (ParkScience) 25 (1). ISSN 1090-9966. Retrieved 2012-10-11. 
  22. M.M. Gardiner, L.L Allee, P.M.J. Brown, J.E. Losey, H.E. Roy, R. Rice Smyth (November 2012). "Lessons from lady beetles: accuracy of monitoring data from US and UK citizen-science programs". Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 10. doi:10.1890/110185. 
  23. M.A. Graber and A. Graber (30 November 2012). "Internet-based crowdsourcing and research ethics:the case for IRB review". The Journal of Medical Ethics. doi:10.1136/medethics-2012-100798. 
  24. Silvertown, J. (2009). "A new dawn for citizen science". Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 24 (9): 467 - 471.
  25. Feyerabend, Paul Karl (1982). Science in a free society. London: New Left Books. ISBN 0-86091-753-3. 
  26. Chargaff, Erwin (1978). Heraclitean fire: sketches from a life before nature. New York: Rockefeller University Press. ISBN 0-87470-029-9. 
  27. Mims III, Forrest M. (1999). "Amateur Science—Strong Tradition, Bright Future". Science 284 (5411): 55–56. Bibcode:1999Sci...284...55M. doi:10.1126/science.284.5411.55. Astronomy has traditionally been among the most fertile fields for serious amateurs [...] 
  28. Kyba, Christopher C. M.; Wagner, Janna M.; Kuechly, Helga U.; Walker, Constance E.; Elvidge, Christopher D.; Falchi, Fabio; Ruhtz, Thomas; Fischer, Jürgen; Hölker, Franz (2013). "Citizen Science Provides Valuable Data for Monitoring Global Night Sky Luminance". Scientific Reports 3. Bibcode:2013NatSR...3E1835K. doi:10.1038/srep01835. 
  29. Sciezor, T. (2013). "A new astronomical method for determining the brightness of the night sky and its application to study long-term changes in the level of light pollution". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 435: 303–310. doi:10.1093/mnras/stt1297.  edit
  30. "The Americal Meteor Society". Archived from the original on 22 August 2006. Retrieved 24 August 2006. 
  31. Lodriguss, Jerry. "Catching the Light: Astrophotography". Archived from the original on 1 September 2006. Retrieved 24 August 2006. 
  32. Citizen Sky
  33. "The UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS)". Retrieved 29 December 2014. 
  34. Leslie Ries. "Analyzing the NABA Butterfly Count Data" (PDF). Retrieved 29 December 2014. 
  35. "Goal 1: Track all North American butterfly monitoring". Retrieved 29 December 2014. 
  36. "eButterfly Homepage". 
  37. "Monarch Watch Homepage". Retrieved 1 January 2015. 
  38. "The Cape May Monarch Monitoring Project". New Jersey Audubon Research Department, and the Cape May Bird Observatory. Retrieved 4 October 2014. 
  39. Bonney, R. and LaBranche, M. (2004). Citizen Science: Involving the Public in Research. ASTC Dimensions. May/June 2004, p. 13.
  40. Baretto, C., Fastovsky, D. and Sheehan, P. (2003). A Model for Integrating the Public into Scientific Research. Journal of Geoscience Education. 50 (1). p. 71-75.
  41. McCaffrey, R.E. (2005). Using Citizen Science in Urban Bird Studies. Urban Habitats. 3 (1). p. 70-86.
  42. 42.0 42.1 Dan Drollette (29 March 2012). "Citizen science enters a new era". BBC. Retrieved 4 October 2014. 
  43. Wells, Spencer (2013). "The Genographic Project and the Rise of Citizen Science". Southern California Genealogical Society (SCGS). Retrieved July 10, 2013. 
  44. King, Turi E.; Jobling, Mark A. (2009). "What's in a name? Y chromosomes, surnames and the genetic genealogy revolution". Trends in Genetics 25 (8): 351–60. PMID 19665817. doi:10.1016/j.tig.2009.06.003. The International Society of Genetic Genealogy ( advocates the use of genetics as a tool for genealogical research, and provides a support network for genetic genealogists. It hosts the ISOGG Y-haplogroup tree, which has the virtue of being regularly updated. 
  45. Mendex, etc. al., Fernando (February 28, 2013). "An African American Paternal Lineage Adds an Extremely Ancient Root to the Human Y Chromosome Phylogenetic Tree". The American Society of Human Genetics. Retrieved July 10, 2013.  This is Volume 92, Issue 3, pages 454-459.
  46. AstroDrone app
  47. 47.0 47.1 "Citizens In Space". Citizensinspace. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  48. ""Teachers in Space" becomes "Citizens In Space"". Retrieved 2012-11-06. 
  49. Science at Home
  51. 'Citizen scientists' watch for signs of climate change, The Christian Science Monitor, April 10, 2008
  52. Ballard, H., Pilz, D., Jones, E.T., and Getz, C. (2005). Training Curriculum for Scientists and Managers: Broadening Participation in Biological Monitoring. Corvallis, OR: Institute for Culture and Ecology.
  53. Cooper, C.B., Dickinson, J., Phillips, T., and Bonney, R. (2007). Citizen Science as a Tool for Conservation in Residential Ecosystems. Ecology and Society. 12 (2).
  54. Firehock, K.; West, J. (1995). "A Brief History of Volunteer Biological Water Monitoring Using Macroinvertebrates". Journal of the North American Benthological Society 14 (1): 197–202. doi:10.2307/1467734.  edit
  55. "BugGuide System Statistics". 6 October 2014. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  56. "New Zooniverse projects – Bat Detective and Click to Cure". European Space Education Resource Office. 30 October 2012. Retrieved 8 October 2014. 
  57. "Citizen Science Alliance website". Retrieved 28 September 2014. 
  61. ParkScan ParkScan project
  62. The Wildlab
  63. iNaturalist
  64. Project Noah
  65. O'Hanlon, Larry (1 May 2013). "Turn Yourself into a Skyglow Meter". Discovery News. Retrieved 8 May 2013. 
  66. "Citizen science: Chandra Clarke at TEDxChathamKent". YouTube. 2014-03-14. Retrieved 2014-09-15. 
  67. Rosner, Hillary (2013). "Data on Wings". Scientific American 308 (2): 68–73. Bibcode:2013SciAm.308b..68R. ISSN 0036-8733. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0213-68. 
  68. "ED51A. Era of Citizen Science: Intersection of Outreach, Scientific Research and Big Data I Posters". American Geophysical Union. 13 December 2013. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  69.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  70. "Conference February 11th-12th, San Jose, California, USA". Citizen Science Association. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 

Further reading

External links