What is Citizen Science?


Broadly defined, citizen science describes scientific investigations in which volunteers participate in scientific studies designed to answer real-world questions [1].  In New Zealand, citizen science is a relatively new term, so no one specific definition has yet been developed. However, there have been many studies in related fields, some of which pre-date the term ‘citizen science’.  As a result there are several related terms that connect with the idea of ‘citizen’ or ‘community’ science.

Terminology ... what's in a name!

The term citizen science was first used to describe volunteer collection of rainwater samples in a project to raise awareness of acid-rain in North America [2]. Another early study used the term to refer to the existence of scientific expertise among the general public who are often known as ‘lay people’ yet may become involved in science discourse and policy-making processes [3]. The definition may also be expanded to describe public involvement in science communication projects [4]. To this end, terminology and definitions still vary across countries and has sparked heated debate in some cases!

Recent studies have defined citizen science in a variety of ways to emphasis public participation in scientific research [5], aspects of volunteerism [6] , and the generation of community-based knowledge (e.g. local knowledge and traditional knowledge). The term is often used to describe involve public participation in projects designed and run by scientists. In contrast, the terms ‘community science’ [7],  ‘civic science’ [8], and ‘community-based participatory research’ [9], have a focus on orienting research projects around community issues and work to minimize the divide between professional scientists and local volunteers. These projects begin with community-defined questions, and involve the participation and input of community members throughout the entire process of data collection, analysis, and dissemination of results [10]. These approaches allow for the best incorporation of local knowledge, as members of the community refine a research question and design the sampling with an understanding of the area’s history [9]. Examples of these projects in New Zealand include many local projects supported by the Curious Minds initiative which funded participatory projects that were co-created by scientists, NGOs, and local communities [11].

Despite the above distinctions, community science or civic science is regarded variously as a form of, or synonym for, citizen science [12] [13] [14]. In some cases, community science has gained favour given the political nature of the term citizen: an inhabitant of a town or city, and a ‘native or naturalized person who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to protection from it’ [15]. Technically, not all citizen science project participants may be citizens of the country in which the project takes place.

In New Zealand, the term ‘citizen science’ has only recently entered the vocabulary in the environmental management, community conservation and science sectors [16] [17].

Who and where are citizen scientists?

Citizen scientists generally do not have formal science qualifications and are typically trained to carry out tasks, such as data collection. Depending on the nature of the citizen science project (e.g., project objectives location, technical skills required), participants may include school children or university students, ethnic and minority groups, local businesses, non-literate groups [18], and recreational or special interest groups such as divers [19] or birdwatchers [20] [21].  Participants range from holiday-makers (e.g., Earthwatch) to local residents [22] ,  and geographical settings can include practically anywhere ... from local backyards [21] , to parks and reserves [23], river catchments [24] , and where natural disasters or pollution events have occurred [25]. Given the relative newness of the term citizen science, participants may think of themselves as just ‘volunteers’ rather than ‘citizen scientists’ as highlighted here!

How is citizen science carried out?

Science studies across different fields can generally be divided into 4 phases: design, data collection, data analysis and reporting. Depending on the nature of the research, volunteers or “citizen scientists” may engage in one or more phases.

In some projects (e.g. ‘crowd-sourcing’), public participation may be limited to data collection, often through an app on a smartphone. At the other end of the participation spectrum, community environmental groups may design their own methods. Alternatively, they may collaborate with formal scientists to co-design the research.

As well as collecting the data, citizen scientists may also analyse and report on the data themselves to assist with other objectives. Examples include environmental restoration groups who complete monitoring to gauge the success of their projects. In New Zealand, many such groups can be found on the Nature Space website which provides an information and resources portal for community restoration efforts.

The following table shows three overlapping groups of citizen science activities based on characteristics which (1) emphasize volunteerism; (2) highlight participatory processes, and (3) locality as a defining features.  

Table 1. Characterisation of citizen projects according to three lenses: volunteerism, participatory processes, and locality.


by non- professionals

Examples include volunteered geographical information [26] and community-based environmental monitoring (CBEM) carried out by individuals or community groups, often in collaboration with researchers, local institutions, government agencies or industry. Volunteerism is harnessed by formal scientists in crowd-sourcing projects where geographically-dispersed participants contribute data to a collective project [1].
Participatory processes Examples include: participatory action research [27], participatory (environmental) monitoring [6][14][28][29], participatory rural appraisal [30], and participatory modelling and mapping [31][32]. In New Zealand, a participatory science theme was adopted by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment to describe the meaningful involvement of volunteers “...in the development and progression of locally relevant research projects with science and technology professionals”. The term ‘participatory’ was favoured to emphasise a focus on collaborative partnering between volunteers and scientists/technologists rather than scientists crowd-sourcing their data.
Locality The geographic scale of citizen science projects can vary dramatically. Large scale projects with geographically-dispersed participants are becoming commonplace, partly thanks to advances in technology [33]. Mobile technologies have greatly expanded the ability of crowd-sourcing projects to engage with volunteers by offering innovative options for data entry, analysis, and feedback [34]. Other the other hand, locally-based monitoring is where local residents study local issues (e.g., declines in water quality decline, plant survival, or pest incursions). In these cases, the small scale may not warrant investigation by science professionals [35]. Street science is an occasional term that emphasises both the non-institutional setting of the research and nature of research participants [36].


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