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What is citizen science?

Science is our most reliable system of gaining new knowledge and citizen science is the public involvement in inquiry and discovery of new scientific knowledge. 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.

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.

"Amateur science," "crowdsourced science," “volunteer monitoring,” and "public participation in scientific research" are also common aliases for citizen science.

What is a citizen scientist?

A citizen scientist is an individual who voluntarily contributes his or her time, effort, and resources toward scientific research in collaboration with professional scientists or alone. These individuals don’t necessarily have a formal science background.

Today, citizen scientists come from all walks of life and have many advocates in the scientific community, including current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders  in science professions who tune thousands of non-traditional audiences into citizen science; online gamers who lend their skills to specially designed programs to analyze folding protein structures and shape the building blocks of life; and students who want a more hands-on experience outside the classroom. Retirees, environmental justice advocates, and even prisoners are getting involved.

How can I get involved in citizen science projects?

SciStarter provides a database of more than 1500 vetted, searchable projects and events.

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 Project NOAHSciSpy and 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 YardMap, volunteers literally don't have to go farther than their own backyards to contribute!

The idea behind these projects is that anyone, anywhere can participate in meaningful scientific research.

How will citizen science 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 the field of 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.

Professional association: 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 graduate courses: SciStarter's founder, Darlene Cavalier, teaches a graduate level course at Arizona State University, aptly titled, "Citizen Science." Find assigned readings, a list of guest speakers, and class assignments in Cavalier's Citizen Science course syllabus.

Champions of Change: The White House honored several "stellar" citizen scientists. 


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)

April 2016: The Rightful Place of Citizen Science, ASU Press

Spring 2016: Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction (MaryEllenHannibal.com)

Fall 2016: Citizen Science, by Dr. Caren Cooper

Spring 2017: The Handbook of Citizen Science in Ecology and Conservation  


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 (http://www.asmscience.org/content/journal/jmbe/17/1?). 

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

Guide to Citizen Science Participation

Data Management Guide for Citizen Scientists

A Sampling of 2013 Citizen Science Research Papers

Citizen Science Reveals an Extensive Shift in the Winter Distribution of Migratory Western Grebes

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. The 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

Citizen science definition on Wikipedia

SciStarter's searchable list of 1100+ citizen science projects

PLOS blog CitizenSci

Cornell Citizen Science Toolkit

Citizen Science | Scientific American

Citizen Scientists League

Public Laboratory

Platforms to Create Your Own Citizen Science Project






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