Saturday, September 3, 2011

Finalizing a Definition of "Citizen Science" and "Citizen Scientists"

Photo Courtesy: Booksworm
Over the last two weeks I've been thinking a lot more about our question of "What is a Citizen Scientist?"  On the one hand the various definitions we've already talked about seem even stronger than they did on first glance; incorporating many of the thoughts I presumed would be missing.  But yet there are still some holes we need to fill.  So let's look more closely at some of the proposed definitions.

There are two definitions that come closest, so let's examine each one in turn.  The first is from Silvertown:

"A citizen scientist is a volunteer who collects and/or processes data as part of a scientific enquiry."

The main issue I have with this entry is the use of the term "volunteer".  Certainly there is a hobby or avocational aspect of citizen science, but making money from scientific contributions should not be ruled out.  For starters, many of the Challenge-type projects (such as the Innocentive project or the Ansari X Prizes) rely on profit motives to encourage participation and to inspire innovation.  Even further, they recognize that key insights to problems may come from outside the established scientific community (or at least from outside the targeted discipline).  There are also projects that rely on profit motives for the collection of data...I term these "Bounty" projects.  These would also be excluded from a volunteer-based definition.

I haven't talked much about Bounty projects on this site since there haven't been many good examples of them developed so far.  But I expect to see them in the future and think this is an exciting area for future development in the field.  Not only will it help science generally but it will also help overcome the monetization problem needed to make citizen science increasingly mainstream and incorporate citizen scientists more firmly in the corporate science environment.  Similar to Challenge projects they use profit as a motive, but don't use it to spur innovation.  Instead rewards are used to incentivize the collection of data that may not be a goal in and of itself, but which is needed for others to fulfill the scientific goal.  Examples are data collection projects that base raffle-style drawings based on the amount of data each user collects, or which offers prizes for hitting certain levels of participation.  I'll have much more on this in future posts (after doing some more research) as it's an exciting new area for potential growth.

The second definition is more of a description, and comes from the Po Ve Sham blog of Muki Haklay (who is apparently writing a book chapter on citizen science in GIS - Geographic Information Sciences):

"[Citizen Science is defined as]...scientific activities in which non-professional scientists volunteer to participate in data collection, analysis and dissemination of a scientific project..."

What I like about this one is that it includes the a brief, but concise and encompassing range of activities citizen scientists perform.  It even adds dissemination, which I had not initially included but which may be appropriate.  In my understanding dissemination involves teaching others about science and the scientific process, and activity performed by our most illustrious professional scientists as well.  But the distinction between "professional" and "non-professional" scientists in this description does cause some problems for me.  It neglects the many scientists who are active in one field "professionally" but whose love of scientific inquiry in general leads them to become involved in citizen science projects outside their current discipline.  Anecdotally I'd say this describes the majority of currently active citizen scientists since these people are most likely to have both the general tools and personality to be interested in this research.  So we have to make sure they are included too.

Another problem with this description is it's circularity that defines citizen scientists as performing scientific activities in a scientific project.  Instead I'd prefer a definition that describes the nature of science without using that term, such as dictionary definitions involving systematic explorations/discoveries of natural phenomena.  Or we could just use synonymous terms such as "Investigator" or "Researcher". It's admittedly a minor point, and possibly a bit pedantic, but we should keep it in mind.

Looking at everything said over the last few blog posts (here, here and here),  any definition needs to capture professional scientists working outside their discipline.  And it can't be relegated to just certain disciplines currently popular in citizen science such as ecology or astronomy.  So I'm offering the following alternatives for people to comment on.

Citizen Scientist: Researcher who participates in the systematic collection and analysis of data; development of technology; testing of natural phenomena; and the dissemination of these activities on an avocational basis.

Citizen Science:  The systematic collection and analysis of data; development of technology; testing of natural phenomena; and the dissemination of these activities by researchers on a primarily avocational basis.

So what do you think?  Does this go to far?  Is there anything missing?  Should dissemination be included?  Is it too wordy or even just not very poetic?  Leave me your comments below and we can come up with the most definitive (no pun intended) version we can.

UPDATE: Added "systematic" to each definition to emphasize that citizen science does not occur in a vacuum, but involves the whole scientific community.

Update 2: Added the qualifier "primarily avocational" to avoid excluding vocational researchers who participate in citizen science as an addition to their work.


  1. Thank you for an excellent, thought provoking post.

    In my experience, I would consider citizen scientists to be providing either brute force observation or brute force analysis. I think this would (rightly) exclude someone, for example, who installs seti@home (or similar application) as they are not providing a service that couldn't be provided by a super computer. Would you consider your definitions to encompass this?

    Additionally, I think dissemination should be included (and is probably a little better than using 'crowd sourcing'). In addition, perhaps contribution/collaboration should also be included as the researcher isn't usually the progenitor of the project? I can disseminate birding observations (for ex) to a personal blog, but am I really contributing to citizen science (aka, directing those observations to an Audubon society census)? I did read somewhere about a project where astronomers pulled public images from sites like flicker of a recent comet and used them to perform an orbital analysis. So I would consider 'strong citizen science' = collaboration vs. 'weak citizen science' = non-directed dissemination. Not sure if this point is overkill or not, but is knowing/willing participation a factor worth considering? Or is it not relevant for there to be a direct connection between the avocational and professional researchers?

    I'd like to hear what you think.

  2. Natureboy153 - Thanks for the great comment. It's given me a lot to think about.

    To your first point, the question of whether distributed computing is actually citizen science is something I debated myself. For the time being I've included it since 1) most people cite it as an early example of citizen science, 2) future iterations may be less passive as the technology develops, and 3) I didn't want that debate to interfere with the definitional discussion. But it's definitely something I want to address in a separate set of blog posts (hopefully in the very near future).

    To your second point, there is a difference between "strong" and "weak" citizen science, though I tend to use the concept of "User Level" and the active/passive involvement as a more neutral term. I also think there is a "citizen science ladder" that moves people from simple, passive involvement to much more active involvement, so including those more passive projects is important in building the field overall. But that's just my thinking.

    To your final point, there is also a big differnce to me between performing science individually for one's own benefit and doing it as part of an overall effort (or at least making it available to others). It can be a simple data collection, but if you're doing it as part of a larger project, or as part of your own project but making the data public for others to use, then it would be citizen science. Otherwise it's just a private activity outside the citizen science realm. But that makes me think that adding the concept of "systematic" data analysis and collection should be in the definition. I'm borrwoing it from the general "science" definition and may help bridge that gap. So thanks for pointing that out.

    And thanks again for hte other comments. It's given me a lot to think about for future posts.

  3. I am sorry to be joining this discussion a little late. I like your definitions. I wonder if they go quite far enough, though. Science is not just about data collection and analysis, but also extends to the formulation of hypotheses, interpretation of results, etc.

    Currently, there are limits as to the extent to which citizen scientists are able to contribute, and the exclusion of these more creative aspects of science from the definition may be justified on these grounds. However.....

    ...I wonder if we should be aspiring to more? This could be done by rephrasing your first definition as "systematic collection, interpretation and analysis of data; development of ideas; development of technology...."

    Or is that too aspirational?....

  4. Another late-comer... I'd be interested in your thoughts on the "definition" we offer on, here:

    I think we've covered some similar ground and grappled with similar issues (e.g., a space for professionals involved avocationally), but deal less directly with approaches like distributed computing.

    Thanks for furthering the discussion here...

  5. JenniferS -

    Thanks for the comment. I've enjoyed a lot of the work being done over at though I hadn't looked as closely at the citizen science definition discussions until recently.

    From what I read there is an important differentiation that your group makes between citizen science public participation in science research (PPSR) though I'm curious if you see it that way too. To me, PPSR has more of a top-0down approach of including volunteers in "professional" projects, either for data collection, analysis, research etc. But there is a little less hypothesis development in PPSR or of independent research in it. To me, the concept of working independently or on starting an "amateur" project with the help of other volunteers is the big separation between the two.

    Given that separation, I've focused more on the citizen science side since one eventual goal is figuring out how to bring people into more aspects of the scientific arena than they are now. The thoughts are still brimming and I haven't written about them yet but hope to in the near future.

    Back to that separation though, I'm curious how you see the difference. I see PPSR as one part of citizen science, and it's also one of the most prevalant parts of citizen science to date that has helped drive the field forward. It's often these established enterprises with the funding and time to set up projects for people to be involved in and handling the managerial/coordination aspects of these projects, though others may see it differently.

  6. Hello,

    I find your suggested definitions confusing. I miss terms like "volunteer" or "non-professional". Additionally, the term "researcher" is ambiguous. Do you mean professionals (who possibly organise a SC campaign), or volunteering (non-professional) contributors, or both?


    Matthias Stevens

  7. Thanks for the comment Matthias. I tried to moveaway from "volunteer" and used "avocational" instead since some money can be earned through citizen science and it's not strictly volunteer. And I used researcher to include all people involved, as long as they are doing it on an avocational basis. So a non-priofiessional can design a project under this definition and still be a citzen scientist, but a professional designing one in their own field probably would not.

  8. I have been an amateur scientists since I was 10 and am now 52. I do research into theoretical physics and even had an appointment (paid) at the University of Wisconsin Department of Physics at Madison. I have co-written a book on theoretical physics with Leonard Susskind. I have published in the peer reviewed journals and presented papers at conferences. Please make sure that those of us who do more than data logging and distributed computing are included. I have gotten enough emails from dedicated amateur theorists and mathematicians to know that there is a significant potential community out there.

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