The ABC of citizen science
Also called amateur science, crowdsourced science, volunteer monitoring, civic science or networked science, citizen science describes a scientific collaboration between professional and nonprofessional scientists. These amateurs are mostly unpaid volunteers participating in data collection, data analysis or crowdsourcing (defined as “an open call to a wide group to aid in some kind of labor”)
The citizen science project has to be carefully designed by scientists and broken down in precise tasks doable by anybody. The clarity and simplicity of the protocol determines the high quality of the data collected by the volunteers, that can be later combined by the scientists.
What fields does citizen science cover?
Birdwatchers, bug collectors or stargazers… When one thinks of Citizen Science, they often associate it with outdoor projects, where volunteers play the role of observers and data collectors. But beyond ecology and astronomy, the fields covered by Citizen Science are way more diverse: medicine, molecular biology, physics, computer science, statistics, psychology or engineering, to name but a few. Nowadays, volunteers are not restricted to the collection of data, but can be also involved in data interpretation and problem solving.
What advantages does citizen science bring?
By bridging gaps between scientists and society, citizen science provides mutual benefits for both scientific research and people.
In 2015, Sauermann and Franzoni analyzed people’s contributions in seven crowd science projects hosted in 2010 on the online platform Zooniverse. Their results showed that 100,386 users participated at least once in the first 180 days of each project. This represents a total of 129,540 hours of unpaid labor, which would amount to more than $1.5 million, based on the typical hourly wage of US undergraduate research assistants ($12/h). Beyond helping research save money, citizen science makes possible large scale projects that would not have the resources to exist otherwise.
Moreover, citizen science initiatives can arise from citizen themselves, focusing on problems that are relevant in terms of social needs. For instance, a local community concerned by the water quality in the neighborhood could decide to collect samples, ask scientists to analyze data and raise funds to finance the study and its publication. Another example is illustrated in the touching movie Lorenzo’s Oil: Based on a true story, the movie narrates how parents, trying to find new treatments for the rare disease of their son, encourage new medical approaches and collaborations.
A brief history of Citizen Science
The collect of data done by non professional scientists has existed for a long time without precise terminology. Charles Darwin, a non professional researcher and an unpaid volunteer during his trip on the Beagle, is rarely referred to as a citizen scientist. If the term appeared in the early 1900s to design scientists independent of institutions, it was later redefined in the mid 1990s. Irwing described it as the science for citizen, underlying the responsibility of science towards society, while Bonney, working at the Cornell lab of Ornithology, defined it as the contribution of public to science. This last definition is the one used nowadays and added in the Oxford English Dictionary in 20141.
Citizen Science today
With the advances of technology, citizen science is accelerating and evolving. More information can be shared through social networks. With smartphones, any observation can be geo-localized and shared instantly. Moreover, despite the more and more powerful abilities of computers, human intelligence remains precious for many tasks, such as the identification of unexpected pattern. Crowdsourcing uses the internet to obtain inputs from a large group of people, using these connected brains in various efforts: solving biochemistry puzzles (Fold It, online game investigating protein folding), mapping the brain (EyeWire, online game helping neuroscientific research in visual perception), or classifying pictures and data in astrophysics or meteorology (different projects on the platform Zooniverse).
I am getting so interested in Citizen Science! Where can I get involved?
Citizen science is more accessible today than ever and the odds that you find a project which fits your curiosity, interest and availability are very high. Participating is easy and often requires only a smartphone or an internet connection. Several online platforms gather many citizen science projects to help you find the one that could suit you. Some of them are listed below along with resources to go further on the topic. This list is far from being exhaustive, but can be a good point to start slaking one’s thirst of knowledge on this topic.
A few examples of online platforms
Scistarter, Zooniverse, Crowdcrafting are a few examples of platforms covering a huge diversity of disciplines across the sciences and humanities and gathering thousands of citizen scientists all over the world.
- CitSci.org was developed through the Natural Resources Ecology Lab at Colorado State University. They began as an online support system for monitoring and tracking observations, and host nowadays 695 citizen science projects including air and water quality, stream monitoring, and energy use.
- iNaturalist: Joint initiative form the California Academy of Science and the National Geographic Society. iNaturalist is one of the most popular nature app: People can record, share and discuss their observations or take part in different conservation projects and biodiversity studies.
- Adventure Scientists recruits volunteers with strong outdoor skills (mountaineering, diving or whitewater kayaking) who collect hard-to-obtain data all over the world to tackle environmental issues.