As we face global challenges, we may want to find local ways to make a difference in protecting endangered species, safeguarding water sources, preventing disease, or accelerating medical research. Science needs more eyes, ears and perspectives than any scientist possesses. Enter citizen science: a collaboration between scientists and those of us who are just curious or concerned and motivated to make a difference. People just like you are collecting data by taking photos of clouds or streams, documenting changes in nature, using smartphone sensors to help scientists monitor water and air quality, or playing games to help advance health and medical research. A citizen science project can involve one person or millions of people collaborating towards a common goal. Typically, public involvement is in data collection, analysis, or reporting.
Here are four common features of citizen science practice: (a) anyone can participate, (b) participants use the same protocol so data can be combined and be high quality, (c) data can help real scientists come to real conclusions, and (d) a wide community of scientists and volunteers work together and share data to which the public, as well as scientists, have access. (theoryandpractice.citizenscienceassociation.org/articles/10.5334/cstp.51/)
The fields that citizen science advances are diverse: ecology, astronomy, medicine, computer science, statistics, psychology, genetics, engineering and many more. The massive collaborations that can occur through citizen science allow investigations at continental and global scales and across decades—leading to discovery that a single scientist could never achieve on their own.
"Community science," "Amateur science," "crowdsourced science," “volunteer monitoring,” and "public participation in scientific research" are also common aliases for citizen science.
Darlene Cavalier, the Founder of SciStarter and Professor of Practice at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, co-edited an accessible, easy-to-read primer on citizen science for anyone interested in understanding the landscape-- The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science. Cavalier and SciStarter editors more recently authored, The Field Guide to Citizen Science, published by Timber Press (2020). Additionally, you can listen to Dr. Caren Cooper talk about citizen science in her TEDx talk in Greensboro, NC.
Who are citizen scientists?
Citizen scientists typically are not professional scientists. Rather, they are curious or concerned people who collaborate with professional scientists in ways that advance scientific research on topics they care about.
Today, citizen scientists come from all walks of life including retirees seeking to socially connect with others while applying their seasoned knowledge and experiences in ways that help others; online gamers who lend their skills to specially designed programs to analyze folding protein structures and shape the building blocks of life; educators and students who want a more hands-on experience outside the classroom; environmental justice advocates who want to see critical data with their own eyes; current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders in science professions who engage thousands of non-traditional audiences in citizen science; and even prisoners are getting involved.
How can I get involved?
SciStarter provides a database of more than 3,000 vetted, searchable projects and events. Use the advance search tool to filter for the best location, topic, interest and more.
Today’s opportunities to participate in citizen science are boundless. Odds are there is a citizen science project that coincides with any hobby, interest, or curiosity that you may have. Participating is easy! Often, you can use your mobile phone or the internet to collect and submit observations and to see results. These emergent, accessible platforms make it possible to help the USGS measure and record earthquake tremors; join NASA's effort in counting passing meteors, and even help monitor noise and light pollution in our communities. Platforms like iNaturalist provide free mobile apps for participants to share photos and observations of wildlife and nature in their backyards, cities, and towns. For some projects, like Stall Catchers and Instant Wild you don't even have to leave the comfort of home to participate.
The idea behind these projects is that anyone, anywhere can participate in meaningful scientific research.
How will it affect the future of scientific research?
Bridging gaps. Citizen science bridges gaps by harnessing the power of people who are motivated by curiosity, a desire to advance research, or a concern about environmental conditions in their communities, then connecting them to projects that benefit from their energy and dedication.
Scope. In the past, collecting large samples of data for research was the most challenging task of any initiative. However, with today’s interconnected world, thousands of people from around the globe can remotely contribute to a study and provide, analyze, or report data that researchers can use. Public participation enables investigations that would not otherwise be possible, ones that push new frontiers in our understanding of our world.
Policy. Increased public participation in scientific research will ideally cultivate a citizenship that is knowledgeable about the scientific enterprise. Citizen science encourages people to take a stake in the world around them. As a result, the hope is that this informed public will play an valuable role in influencing larger decisions about science policy. There are national and international groups pushing for this right now.
How is citizen science being formalized?
Science and citizen science have the same historic roots that link it to people who sought discovery in their leisure time. When science became a profession in the 1800s, contributions from non-professionals continued. Yet, only recently has the profession of science reunited with leisure participation. Many recent studies have shown data from volunteers are as reliable as from professionals. For more challenging areas, many new statistical techniques have been developed to address data quality and other aspects of “big data.” The number of research studies benefitting from citizen science is growing every year.
Below are links to professional associations, graduate courses, research papers, and additional resources about citizen science.
The Citizen Science Association launched in 2015 following the Public Participation in Scientific Research conference which was one of various meetings during which science researchers, project leaders, educators, technology specialists, evaluators, and more sat down together to engage in dialogue and exchange ideas about public participation in science. The cross-disciplinary event unveiled the publication of the first journal issue exclusively devoted to citizen science.
Citizen Science certification (formal and informal)
Arizona State University offered a graduate level course, aptly titled, "Citizen Science." Find assigned readings, a list of guest speakers, and class assignments in Cavalier's 2014 Citizen Science course syllabus. Stay tuned for a comprehensive list of college and graduate level Citizen Science courses!!!
Ocean Sanctuaries offers a Marine Citizen Science certificate .
Champions of Change
The White House honored several "stellar" citizen scientists.
- The Field Guide to Citizen Science: How You Can Contribute to Scientific Research and Make a Difference (available on Feb. 4, 2020)
- Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World
- The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science
- Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice (Urban and Industrial Environments)
- The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science, ASU Press
- Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction
- Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery
- Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science, and Public Engagement
- Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science
To learn more about citizen science, check out the following recommeded sites, articles, and blogs.
Formal, Recent Reports on Trends in Citizen Science
- 2016 Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education published by the American Society for Microbiology: themed issue on citizen science.
- UPenn researchers call for guidelines for utilizing crowdsourcing/citizen science to advance health and medicine.
- Understanding Environmental Monitoring
- Sensr: Evaluating a Flexible Framework for Authoring Mobile Data-Collection
- The Organization of Scientific Research in Open Collaborative Projects
- Data Management Guide for Citizen Scientists
A Sampling of Citizen Science Research Papers (see Google Scholar for a full, up-to-date list)
About Fold-It results including contributions from online game players who helped solve a protein structure biologists could not solve for a decade.
- Predicting trends in humpback whale ('Megaptera novaeangliae') abundance using citizen science
- Common loons
- Distribution and abundance of small plastic debris on beaches in the SE Pacific (Chile): A study supported by a citizen science project
- Emerald ash borer
- Effects of the emerald ash borer invasion on four species of birds using data from Project FeederWatch, a citizen science program focused on winter bird populations.
- Extended season for northern butterflies: A comparative study with data from a citizen science project, including 66 species of butterflies in Sweden, was undertaken, and the result confirms that most--but not all-- butterfly species now fly earlier during the season.
- Using a citizen science landscape-scale mark–release–recapture study on 87 macro-moth species, researchers investigated how both life-history traits and landscape characteristics predicted macro-moth responses to forest fragmentation.
- Hummingbird migration
- Jupiter-sized planet around another star: Planet Hunters is a citizen science project that crowd-sources the assessment of NASA Kepler light curves. (This discovery of 43 planet candidates demonstrates the success of citizen scientists at identifying planet candidates, even in longer period orbits with only two or three transit events.)
- Acoustic characterization of seahorse tank environments in public aquaria: A citizen science project
- Reporting poaching in congo: (This paper describes a project initiated by non-literate indigenous people to equip their own "citizen scientists" with rugged smartphones running adapted software that enable them to share some of their detailed environmental knowledge in ways that improve the sustainable management of their forest.)
- Quadruple star system: (A planet was discovered by volunteers searching the first six Quarters of publicly available Kepler data as part of the Planet Hunters citizen science project.)
- Microbe patterns in homes with dogs: (This work provides the first comprehensive analysis of the microbial communities found in the home and the factors that shape the structure of these communities both within and between homes. Based on results from Wildlife In Our Homes, a citizen science project.)
Thoughtleaders and Other Resources
- SciStarter's searchable list of 3000+ citizen science projects
- Cornell Citizen Science Toolkit
- Citizen Science | Scientific American
- Public Laboratory