January 9, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich

Citizen science

I recently wrote a post about ‘scientific citizenship’. Today I want to home in on a related concept: ‘citizen science’. First I’ll show you how the Oxford English Dictionary has defined the phrase; then I’ll examine how the concept was used in the news and who employed the concept first; and finally I’ll briefly reflect on the recent explosion in the use of that concept.

Defining citizen science

In June 2014 the Oxford English Dictionary added a new word to its dictionary, testifying to an increased interest in ‘citizen science’. The OED defines citizen science as follows: “citizen science n. scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions. 1989   Technol. Rev. Jan. 12/4   Audubon involves 225 society members from all 50 states in a ‘citizen science’ program… Volunteers collect rain samples, test their acidity levels, and report the results to Audubon headquarters. 2002   M. B. Mulder & P. Coppolillo Conservation xi. 295/1   Citizen science has the potential to strengthen conservation practice in the developing world. 2012   M. Nielsen Reinventing Discov. vii. 151   Citizen science can be a powerful way both to collect and also to analyze enormous data sets.” (highlighting slightly changed) (for more info read this blog post)

As one can see in the examples provided by the OED, citizen science projects can range from counting birds or collecting rain samples (those were still the days of acid rain) to, increasingly, being involved in ‘big data’ projects, either collecting big data or analysing them. In this way citizen science links up with crowd-sourcing.

Crowd-sourcing is another concept that needs looking at in the future, especially since both citizen science and crowd-sourcing were the only anchor points for a very short discussion about ‘openness’ in science in the recent Science and Innovation Strategy – in fact, openness and public engagement in science were reduced to these activities. (While drafting this post on 2 January, Richard Gray published this article on crowd-funding in the Guardian; a commenter mentioned an academic article with the interesting title: “Crowdfunding in Academia: An Emerging Funding Mechanism for Science Research” – and of course one would have to reflect on the political and semantic differences between crowd, citizen and public, as well as between crowd science, citizen science and public science).

Citizen science in the news

As you can see from the following figure (derived as usual from searching Lexis Nexis, All English Language News), the phrase ‘citizen science’ has become steadily more prominent in news coverage, from only a few attestations in the year 2000 to 2044 in the year 2014 (5840 overall). The National Audubon Society, mentioned in the 1989 OED attestation of the concept, comes up frequently, in fact almost yearly, in the news, as it organises the Christmas bird count in America – which started back in 1900! And birds have certainly been, until recently, the most frequent citizen science objects discussed in the news (but I haven’t done a formal count!)


Early days

When looking at the first two or three years of news coverage, I came across the phrase ‘citizen science writer’ which confused me a bit until I found out that it referred to the ‘science writer’ for the Ottawa newspaper The Citizen. This use was however soon superseded by increasingly frequent uses of the phrase citizen science ‘proper’. But here again, things were not that straightforward, as two meanings of ‘citizen science’ emerged in the 1990s.

As we have seen, since 1989 citizen science refers to projects such as bird counting in which citizens participate and contribute to science. Wildlife counting in general looms large on the citizen science horizon: bats, butterflies, spiders and much more. Here is in another early example of this usage: “When the numbers are finally compiled, the statistics will tell counters and communities alike what is happening to bird populations. ‘It’s sort of citizen science work,’ said Ken Spilios, president of the Citrus County chapter of the Audubon Society. ‘We end up contributing to the data of the people who make decisions.'” (St. Petersburg Times, Florida, 26 December).

Interestingly, as early as 1992 people made a link between citizen science and policy making which has become more prominent in recent years, especially after an intervention by the Science Technology Studies scholar Alan Irwin.

Irwin days

A slightly different meaning of citizen science, focusing on science and policy, emerged in 1995 on the other side of the ocean, in an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement entitled “Creating the citizen scientist” (21 July). On Lexis Nexis the byline is given as Alan Irwin, but the article was actually written by Jon Turney. Irwin’s seminal book Citizen Science came out in September that year. The opening paragraph of the THES article says: “Public Participation in science policy is relatively unknown in the UK. But, as Jon Turney discovers, the Dutch and the Danes have long been pioneers in this area, while Alan Irwin makes the case for continental ‘science shops‘.” Irwin argues that such science shops create “an open line of communication with nearby communities” who might come to researchers who set up these shops at universities, especially in The Netherlands, for expert advise on anything, even regarding law and business. The article also discusses ‘consensus conferences’ in Denmark. And it is quite quaint to hear about an ‘ambitious’ project by the “Science Museum developing worldwide web pages designed to encourage a kind of on-line assessment of biotechnology” – these were the early days of the web!

Out of curiosity I then searched for ‘citizen science’ and ‘Alan Irwin’ in my corpus and only found three other articles, only one of which was really interesting. It appeared recently in ClimateWire (10 September, 2014) and reports on a study by Caren Cooper et al. published in PLoS ONE entitled: “The Invisible Prevalence of Citizen Science in Global Research: Migratory Birds and Climate Change”. Cooper is “a scientist at the Bird Population Studies and Citizen Science programs at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology”. (By the way, Cornell is mentioned 562 times together with ‘citizen science’ in my overall corpus of 5840 articles, while ‘Audubon’ is mentioned 1043 times in articles dealing with citizen science.)

Cooper tried to find out whether the contribution of citizen science/citizen scientists is acknowledged in work relying on such citizen data collections. She found not only that this is rather rare, but also that “[n]one of the studies […] used the terms ‘citizen science’ or ‘citizen scientist.’” The article goes on to say that Cooper doesn’t think the omission is intentional, but rather that “the term citizen scientist hasn’t really caught on”. That is quite strange to hear in 2014.

Interestingly, the article points out that “[a]lthough the term ‘citizen scientist’ is fairly new, members of the public have been contributing to science projects for decades” and points to the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count which started in 1900. The article then quotes Rick Bonney, director of program development and evaluation at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who reviewed Cooper’s study, and who claims that he “was one of the first to use the term ‘citizen science’ in 1994…’I just thought citizen science had a nice ring to it,’ Bonney said”. However, the article also notes that “a man named Alan Irwin gets official credit for coining ‘citizen scientist’ in 1995. He used the term to describe the way the public influences and participates in science, rather than to describe the data collected, according to Cooper. “

We have then two sources for the phrase ‘citizen science’, one being Rick Bonney (and Ken Spilios of the Audubon Society) who links it to the data collection practices by citizens and communities and their involvement in big science projects, especially ornithology ones; another being Alan Irwin whose work is rooted in studies dealing with science and its publics and with critical reflections on public engagement and public participation in science and policy. I have not followed up on all the 5840 article in my corpus to see which meaning of citizen science was more common or how meanings changed over time, especially over recent years – that could be a nice project for somebody else!

Citizen science – past and future

I’ll end this quick study of citizen science in the news by quoting from a recent press release by the University of Canberra, Australia, announcing a symposium on policy innovation, reported in Premium Official News December 27, 2014, as it encapsulates I think a most recent shift in meaning, from bird counting to policy tool (although, as we have seen, that meaning was not absent from those involved in bird counting in the 1990s): “There are new forms of discovery just waiting to be found. They include making more use of Random Controlled Trials, the analysis of Big Data, deliberative tools for decision-making, design thinking, qualitative techniques for comparison using Boolean and fuzzy set logic, citizen science, narrative from policy makers and citizens, policy visualisation, spatial mapping, simulation modelling and various of forms of statistical analysis (such as cluster analysis) that draw from beyond the established tools.” (Italics added)

Interest in citizen science is certainly increasing. Some, like Benedikt Fecher, are speaking of a renaissance in citizen science, but one where the lone amateur scientist is replaced by the crowd, and where citizen science becomes ‘crowd science’. This explosion in (media) interest in and use of citizen science is not only driven by politics or science or Science and Technology Studies, but, of course, also by new technologies, especially online ones, which produce masses of data and, in a sense, also produce data for the masses.

Counting birds is still a popular citizen science activity, but many others have emerged, from searching for extraterrestrial life to genome sequencing to geotagging diseased trees to spotting bees. As Fecher points out, quite often “[c]itizen scientists perform honey bee tasks”. However, citizen science should not be reduced to this type of engagement in the future; it should not be reduced to an instrument for offsetting government funding cuts for science; it should not become just a (big data) ‘tool’; and it should not be used as a fig-leaf for ‘openness‘.

Some, like Bruce Lewenstein, using Cornell’s long-standing citizen science ornithology projects as a case study, want to see citizen science as involvement by non-scientists in true democratic decision-making about policy issues relating to science and technology. We shall see whether and when this as yet utopian vision becomes reality. Given that, as pointed out above, the UK government’s Science and Innovation Strategy seems to reduce public engagement with science and openness in science to citizen science and crowd-sourcing, there might still be a fair way to go!

Added, 11 January, 2015: Muki Haklay who directs the Extreme Citizen Science group at UCL sent me a link to a blog post in which he discusses the OED definition. It’s well worth a read! https://povesham.wordpress.com/2014/09/10/citizen-science-in-oxford-english-dictionary/

Added 19 January, 2015: JComm has just published a call for papers on citizen science! See here: http://jcom.sissa.it/archive/13/04/JCOM_1304_2014_C01/call-for-papers-2013-citizen-science

Added 23 January, 2015: I have just seen another blog post that complements this one and is worth a read: http://citizenscience.blogg.gu.se/

Added 27 January 2015: There is now a journal devoted to Citizen Science! http://www.scilogs.com/communication_breakdown/citizen-science-journal/

Image: Photo taken by Benedikt Fecher of part of the Berlin wall, reproduced with permission (It says: “Viele kleine Leute die in vielen kleinen Orten viele kleine Dinge tun können das Gesicht der Welt verändern. Many small people who do many small things in many small places [that] can change the face of the earth”) I’d also like to thank Benedikt for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post.



Posted in citizen sciencepublic engagement with sciencepublic participationpublicsscience and politicsScience Policy