This chapter introduces a relatively new method of scientific research, citizen science. It will explain how citizen science brings together the scientific community and the public to accomplish research goals. This chapter will briefly describe the history and development of citizen science, successful practices in citizen science projects, how citizen science is used in coproduction of knowledge and transdisciplinary research, the benefits and challenges of utilizing this method, and will look at several examples of successful citizen science projects.

What is Citizen Science?

Citizen science is the use of the public in collecting scientific data. Citizen science projects are characterized by several important features. These features are as follows:

  1. Anyone can participate in citizen science. A person is not required to have a particular background or set of skills to be involved in a citizen science project.
  2. The same protocol is used by all participants. This is to ensure that all participants are following the same procedures to gather data, producing data that is of high quality and has integrity.
  3. Scientists use the data gathered through citizen science to reach real, usable conclusions. Participants are not just engaged in “busy work,” but help to generate results that are relevant and can be used.
  4. Everyone involved can access the data generated. Everyone who participated in the project must be able to access data and the knowledge produced from that data.

Citizen science has been used extensively by groups like the National Audubon Society to help count and track animal populations. It can also be used in mapping projects, collecting samples, and analyzing data.

History and Development of Citizen Science

Citizen science, practiced as we know it today, is a relatively new phenomenon in the scientific community. However, amateurs have been contributing to the scientific process throughout history, in spite of barriers posed by a distinct separation of society and science. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, formalized birding programs were created and used by various organizations to count bird populations as well as observing patterns of migration, including the Christmas Bird Count started by the National Audubon Society. Another early example of a citizen science project is the National Weather Service Cooperative Observer Program, where amateurs reported weather events and provided data related to those events.

Today, citizen science is becoming more accessible because of the invention of smartphones. These devices allow access to location services, dates, and times when taking a picture along with the capabilities to take notes and access the internet and have made this new technology perfect for citizen science efforts. For instance, if a citizen scientist is observing seasonal flower blooms in a section of a state park, he or she may take a picture of a rare orchid. The photo taken will show the flower and its surroundings, a timestamp, and a tagged location. The scientist can add notes to the picture as well as upload the data to the internet instantaneously.

History confirms there has been a strong barrier between the scientific world and society. Scientific research conducted used to be extremely institutionalized, and closed off to the public. If an individual expressed interest on a certain topic, there were limited ways to access the data. Scientific findings would typically be kept within the academic world, with limited access to the public. This actually created a huge barrier with society as the average person wouldn’t typically come across it.. This previous model of science became a strong discourse in society. Civilians simply stayed out of it, as they thought that was their place. The main challenge citizen science faces is working on breaking down the bridge that has been set up for centuries.The past decadesfaces is working on breaking down the bridge that has been set up for centuries.The past decades have shown efforts to incorporate citizen science into scientific research, but it has not been easy.

Types of Citizen Science

There is not one single approach to using citizen science – it is not one-size-fits-all method. Based on the needs and goals of each individual project, there are varying degrees of participant engagement. Some projects may benefit simply from having the additional hands to collect data. Others can be best served by a high level of community participation throughout the scientific process. Citizen science can also take place early in the project, or throughout the coproduction phase. These projects can be organized into three general categories: participatory/contributory, collaborative, and co-created.

  1. Participatory citizen science
    This model of citizen science has the lowest degree of participant engagement out of the three categories. Participants are involved primarily in collecting data. For example, imagine an app for a smartphone that allows citizen scientists to count and share the number of pileated woodpeckers they see. The participants in this example have not been involved in developing the project or the methods, but are still actively engaged in gathering data that can be used as part of a research project.
  2. Collaborative citizen science
    This category is characterized by a higher degree of engagement throughout the research process than is found in participatory citizen science. Typically, these types of projects are designed by researchers, but can be refined by participants. These participants may also be involved in helping to analyze or disseminate information. An example of this may be a beach profiling project where citizen scientists not only gather data, but provide input on the tools and methods used.
  3. Co-produced citizen science
    This model has the highest engagement of participants. Citizen scientists are involved throughout process in coproduction of knowledge, including developing protocols and analyzing data. Co-created projects may be particularly useful in situations that involve community issues and where researchers hope to collect data that will lead to some sort of policy change. An example of this type of project could be one where citizen scientists are engaged at each stage of the transdisciplinary research project – developing the question, gathering data as part of coproduction of knowledge, and bringing knowledge to action in their community.

It is not the case that one of these models is the “best.” Rather, the nature of the projects will determine the appropriate amount of participant involvement, as well as what stages of the research process that engagement should take place in.

Successful Practices in Citizen Science

In order for citizen science to be effective, certain practices help to ensure that participants are engaged throughout the process, the data collected is of high quality, everyone is on the same page about the goals of the project and the methods used, and that the data gathered is used and shared. These practices are:

  1. Developing a research question
  2. Forming a team
  3. Developing and refining procedures and materials
  4. Recruiting and training participants
  5. Gathering data
  6. Analyzing data
  7. Disseminating results
  8. Measuring impact

First, a research question must be developed. This question should be relatively simply and easy to engage with. It cannot be assumed that participants have any scientific background. Therefore, to ensure their continued participation the research question itself, which will shape the nature of the project, should not be overly complicated.

Next, a team must be formed. How many people are involved? To what extent are they involved? As previously addressed, the needs of the project will determine the appropriate extent of participation. In addition, as discussed in previous chapters, building a team is a crucial element of collaboration that will ultimately determine the success of the project. The team must include the right expertise, and researchers and other stakeholders must establish trust between themselves.

Along with developing protocols and procedures, the citizen science participants must be recruited and trained. Finding people who are interested and invested in the research is a benefit to the project as a whole, and training participants so that they are proficient in using the research protocols helps to ensure high quality and legitimate data.

The next step is to develop the procedures that will be used throughout the research process. These procedures may be the result of a co-created citizen science process, with input from participants, or they may be designed solely by the researchers. These procedures may be refined throughout the duration of the research as needed.

After this process, participants and researchers can begin to gather data using the protocols developed. Once data is collected, it can then be analyzed and interpreted. Depending on the level of participant involvement, this may be only researchers or include participant input.

Next, the data must be disseminated. This step is important, as one of the key features of a citizen science project is that all people involved in the project have access to the knowledge that is coproduced. This knowledge can be shared with the community and through scientific publications.

Finally, a successful project is one that’s impact can be measured. There should be metrics in place to evaluate how well the goals of the project were achieved. This includes the data gathered, the results of the research, the impact on the community, and the learning of the participants.

Benefits of Citizen Science

The use of citizen science has many benefits, both for the scientific community as well as for the participants themselves. For instance, citizen science benefits the scientific community because it enables researchers to collect a greater body of data for their work. The logic here is simple: the more people that are engaged in collecting data, the more data that can be gathered. Twenty people collecting data for a research project will be able to do much more in a set period of time than three people. In addition to contributing toward a body of scientific knowledge and benefitting researchers, participants themselves also benefit from the use of citizen science. First, participants are able to learn about scientific issues through their involvement in the collection of data. In evaluating the impact on participants’ learning, the most success occurs when researchers clearly articulate the goals of the project and provide adequate information about the research early in the process. Learning also occurs throughout the training of participants, the collection of data, and the evaluation of data. In addition, citizen science participants may gain a sense of stewardship throughout the research. Engaging with local issues can foster a feeling of responsibility for a particular area or part of the natural environment.

Citizen Science in the Coproduction of Knowledge

Citizen science can be a valuable tool during the process of coproduction. A key feature of coproduction is that a variety of voices from both academic and non-academic researchers and stakeholders make contributions to gathering data and reaching conclusions. This is different from the traditional linear flow of generating knowledge, characterized by a division of science and society. The use of this new scientific method brings together the public with researchers, creating new partnerships that are beneficial for the process of coproduction.

During the coproduction of knowledge, citizen science has the ability to link science with social needs.

Science ⇦ Citizen Science ⇨ Society

Participants are able to bring the needs of the community and certain stakeholders to the table, helping to ensure that the research conducted can be used in productive ways. This is the most likely with co-created citizen science, as there is the most participant engagement and will therefore bring the most community issues into the conversation. However, any sort of community involvement through citizen science can help engage researchers with community issues. Participatory and collaborative citizen science, while having less engagement, still bring in a voice from the community as citizen scientists interact with researchers through training and data collection. Citizen scientists can also help engage a broader network of stakeholders, as they increase the social capital, networks and relationships, of the project through their connection to the community. Citizen science can even be considered boundary spanners (see Chapter 7), as participants serve as a bridge between scientists and the community and have a foot in both realms. These participants can help to build trust in communities that may be wary of outsiders and/or scientists. They can also help communicate the aims of the researchers to the community, and provide a local perspective crucial to understanding the best way researchers can situate themselves in a community. Citizen scientists are able to bridge divides in a way that researchers may not have the connections, social capital, or knowledge to do on their own. They can also identify new challenges during the research process, as well as develop new approaches. Citizen science can also contribute to coproduction by helping to fill in existing gaps of data.

Challenges for Citizen Science

Like any emerging field, citizen science faces many challenges. The ultimate goal of citizen science is to contribute to the coproduction of knowledge. Breaking down the barriers of science and society is the first step to expand all different types of knowledge. Acceptance is key, in the past, citizens were reluctant to join in on scientific work as they thought it was not their place. On the other hand scientists did not think involving the public would benefit their work. The ultimate challenge citizen science faces is universal acceptance, and breaking down the barriers put up. In order for a citizen science project to be successful, three vital factors must come to play. The first is access to experts. Not only experts, but experts who are willing to serve the needs of citizens. If there is no desire on both ends of the spectrum, then nothing will happen. Along with that, material resources are needed as well. If you are not connected to important stakeholders, or resources needed for the project to work, then the project is simply an idea. The last factor needed is open access publishing. This may be the most important tool in informing the public on ongoing problems. An informed public will result in motivation for change. It will take some time for citizen science to be fully accepted and used, and it is already off to a fantastic start.

Examples of Successful Citizen Science Projects

While citizen science faces numerous challenges, that does not mean those challenges have stopped it. We included a few examples of how citizen science has led to a positive benefit in both society, and the scientific world. Because citizen science is a relatively new research method, we wanted to show readers a few real life projects that led to a great change. Keep in mind, there are hundreds of citizen science projects that have taken place or currently are.


Example 1: Virginia Tech with Flint Water Crisis

When the city government of Flint, Michigan decided to switch their water supply from buying from Detroit, to selling citizens treated water from the Flint River, numerous health problems have arose. The city of Flint has financially struggled for years, which was their main factor deciding where they obtain their water. However, residents noticed a change in the water immediately, it had a blue tint, and smelled rotten. Hundreds of citizens have reported different health concerns that include rashes, and extreme illness. Reports of fecal contamination, copper, and lead contamination popped up everywhere. Unfortunately, the government of Flint disregarded the health concerns for months.

The ongoing issues involving the water content, led to a team of researchers from Virginia Tech to become involved. The research team sent out take-home water samples for citizens to be able to test themselves. They created a website, and were seeking citizen scientists to volunteer their time to help out Flint. With the power of the research time, the citizens of Flint, students, and volunteers, change finally started to happen. Eighteen months after the project was launched, the federal government stepped in and demanded Flint to clean up their water. The water quality has since improved by 45%, and is still growing.

This case is an example of Extreme Citizen Science, which empowers citizens to deal with pressing issues that directly affect them.

Example 2: Zebra conservation in Kenya

In this project, citizen science was utilized to learn about zebra populations in order to help with effective zebra conservation. The role of participants was to record location of Grevy’s zebras, an endangered species, as well as counting livestock that compete with the zebras and parasites that harm the zebras. Participants included local and international volunteers. Through this research, the conclusion was reached that the interactions between livestock and zebras were ultimately harming the zebras. Drawing on the community for this project enabled a connection between researchers and farmers, and helped to facilitate conversations about how livestock can harm this endangered zebra population, and potential help minimize conflict between these different species.

Example 3: The Alice Fergusons Foundation’s Trash free Potomac Watershed Initiative

This initiative was setup under the Alice Fergusons Foundation in order to connect people to a project involving a local water source. This project focuses on the watershed of the Potomac River in southern Maryland and Washington, D.C, and empowers citizens to become involved on reducing waste in the river. This river previously had issues involving the levels of waste in it. It was starting to affect nearby citizens. Different government officials, business leaders, organizations and citizens gathered together to work on the initiative. They work on educating residents, have an annual Potomac River clean up, a litter campaign, among with many other boundary spanners. Since this initiative began in 1898, the health of the river has improved dramatically. Along with that, this reached through to policy decisions. They have influenced environmental policy, starting by enabling a five cent fee on plastic bags. Eventually, in 2009, a policy working group was established, and their recommendations were enacted into five different policies. This is yet another example on how citizen science has benefited scientific projects, as well as the people.



The Future of Scientific Research

Scientific research is benefiting from the new popular use of citizen science. Science has finally united with leisure citizen participation, leading to numerous new findings. Citizen science has ultimately helped bridge the gap between science and society. More articles written on the topic of citizen science, published by scientists themselves, have helped people understand this concept better. Citizen science based articles have been showing up more across multiple disciplines. Having a base on a new field of research like this is important. Citizen science allows a connection between motivated people and projects being done that benefit from their motivation. Along with that, as technology advances, it allows connections to occur from across the globe. In the past, to become aware of a scientific study, you would have to search extremely hard to find information. With the use of technology, these scientific reports are much more accessible. We are now able to take part of a study that may be conducted across the world. People are becoming more aware of scientific work being done, as in the past that would typically not occur.

Whether we realize it or not, there is an everlasting relationship between science and society. Science works within many institutions inside of its own culture, and in turn that said culture evolves under the influence of science and technology. A great example of this relationship would be medicine science. The evolution of medicine and procedures, figured out by doctors, has advanced our society tremendously. This relationship applies to research conducted presently, that will influence our future.

Studies have shown that the data collected by citizen volunteers are just as reliable as if a scientist had done it themselves. Each year, there are more studies and projects that include the use of citizen scientists, and their projects have benefited greatly. These are just a few ways that citizen science is becoming recognized and formalized.

One of citizen sciences vital roles is informing the public. An educated public will allows not only awareness of a problem(s), but it also has the potential to influence large scientific policies. Many environmental or societal problems faced today are not known to the average person. With the help of citizen science, it will not only benefit the projects done, but overtime will help formulate policies that are essential. Gathering together motivated, inspired people to become involved in citizen science will benefit many different sectors of society.


Citizen science is a tool to connect different spheres of society in order to advance vital scientific research. Recognizing that putting boundaries between society and the scientific only stalls progress has allowed us to flourish into this new mode. Anybody can become a citizen scientist, which is revolutionary. This new method of scientific inquiry, when done right, has the potential to influence important policy decisions. The information citizen scientists obtain could help affect policy decisions as the government works for the people. The process of formalizing citizen science is still being worked on, but it has become widely more accepted. The numbers of studies and projects benefiting from citizen science are growing every year. Scientists are finally recognizing the importance and benefits citizen scientists bring to the table. The data citizen scientists collect only enriches the research being done for the scientists. In turn, the more educated citizens are, they become more empowered to make a greater change. The mutually benefiting relationship between the scientific world and society is finally recognized, and has been able to prove its benefits through numerous successful scientific inquiries, data, and projects.


Comprehension Questions

  1. Do citizen scientists have to be experts in a certain field?
  2. What are some successful practices in Citizen Science?
  3. How can Citizen Science help in the process of coproduction?
  4. What type of project would not use citizen science? Provide an example. What type of project would include the use of citizen science? Provide an example.
  5. What have been some challenges with Citizen Science in the past that we still see today?





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