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Maiden or queen? (R)evolution of citizen science

Posted November 30, 2015

The field of citizen science is experiencing a major explosion – both in numbers and types of projects that use lay people’s input to achieve scientific goals. However, far from being just a way to crowdsource data, citizen science is shaping up as a unique interdisciplinary field of science, which is becoming a tempting subject of research by itself.

Baby steps to giant leaps

Since Alan Irwin presumably coined the term in 1994, the scope of citizen science has grown dramatically. In fact, as reported by Follett and Strezov in PLoS ONE last week, growth in citizen science-orientated scientific literature has occurred steadily since 2007, when a handful of 6 papers dealing with projects on hummingbirds and butterflies were published at the Ecological Society of America Meeting. According to the researchers “this exposure may have contributed to a substantial increase in publications from that date”.

Indeed, compared to the 6 papers seven years before, in 2014 the number of scientific publications that have to do with citizen science reached a booming 250. And that’s not taking into consideration a likely large body of research published in non-peer review venues, or failing to mention the input of citizen scientists directly.

Dramatic growth of citizen science, as reflected by the body of scientific literature produced. Figure courtesy of Follett and Strezov (2015).

Dramatic growth of citizen science, as reflected by the body of scientific literature produced. Figure courtesy of Follett and Strezov (2015).

Birds still prevail

Perceived by some as “classic” type of citizen science, avian research is still number one topic amongst biology-related citizen science, likely thanks to a dedicated community of amateur birders behind it. In fact, eBird, maintained by the Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, is also one of the contestants for the most impressive citizen-generated data collection with an impressive 120 peer-reviewed publications referenced to have used their data.

Amongst other popular topics are marine organisms, terrestrial invertebrates (including bees, which are one of the hot topics in citizen science at the moment), environment etc.  These contribute both to investigative and conservational research, with investigative work contributing to more than half of the projects.

Image credit: Egle Marija Ramanauskaite (CC BY 2.0). Based on data from Follett and Strezov (2015).

Image credit: Egle Marija Ramanauskaite (CC BY 2.0). Based on data from Follett and Strezov (2015).

Some interesting citizen science “newbies” have also been popping up in recent years, including medical citizen science. Such is, for example, the Phylo game, were volunteers help align bits of DNA to support genetic disease research.

Major input, minor credit?

Among the most popular citizen science platforms is Zooniverse, which grew from its original Galaxy Zoo project, to over 30 projects today. Curiously enough, the notorious Galaxy Zoo, who generally base most of their research on the citizen astronomer’s input, do to not come through strongly in the race for “citizen science driven publications”.

Galaxy Zoo themselves claim to be “really proud of our publication record – 48 papers and counting, just from the team using your classifications”, as put in the project’s blog earlier this year. However, according to Follett and Strezov (2015), Galaxy Zoo has had a mere 4 publications up to the end of 2014 that actually refer to “citizen science”. Other papers, while based on Galaxy Zoo data, do not seem to give rightful acknowledgement to the core body behind it – the citizen scientists themselves.

What’s in the cards for citizen cyberscience?

Citizen cyberscience, distinguished from other types of citizen science largely by being based on online or other human computation platforms, has definitely been associated with a lot of commotion in recent years, including the hype about the above-mentioned Galaxy Zoo, and other online projects, such as Foldit.

However, other than few famous publications (for example, see recent Foldit breakthrough paper), cyberscience projects are overhauled by more “classic” projects, with as little as 12% contribution to the body of citizen science literature in recent years. This, as already pointed out about the case of Galaxy Zoo, might be due to online project failing to actually cite the origins of their data…

Nevertheless, according to the authors, virtual citizen science has substantial potential to grow in the future, with new tools and platforms being set up, and projects popping up faster than ever.

“Virtual projects are likely to grow with recent projects based on using publically available data sources, such as Google Earth which is used for projects such as the discovery of new archaeological sites and publically available picture archives for discovering and tracking species such as the whale-shark,” said the researchers.

Citizen science meta-research: design, education, motivation

With growing body of research that builds on data from citizen science, the field itself is up for investigation too. In fact, interest in the participation patterns, volunteer’s motivation and optimal ways to design citizen science platforms has grown in recent years, which is also becoming evident in the literature.

Interestingly though, publications dealing with education were found to comprise only 7% of all “citizen science” research, which is curious in terms of its perceived potential as an informal learning tool. However, this is likely to change as more robust ways to measure learning are set up, and interest on the complex dimensions of the phenomenon builds up even further.

(R)evolution in the making

While could be seen as the “daughter” branch of other disciplines, citizen science is likely to become an independent, yet beautifully interdisciplinary area of science in the near future.

As put by Jordan et al. (2015) in a recent piece on “Citizen Science as a Distinct Field of Inquiry”: It is clear that biology, sociology, educational psychology, science teaching and learning, ecology, conservation, and resource management are all areas of inquiry that can greatly inform citizen science research.” Yet the element of participation is the distinctive factor of citizen science that separates it from its “sister fields”.

Thus building on the science already out there, citizen science seems to be rising above just a tool in research, and shaping up into a whole new thing – who knows what evolutionary steps will it take next?

Written by Eglė Marija Ramanauskaitė


Follett R, Strezov V (2015) An Analysis of Citizen Science Based Research: Usage and Publication Patterns. PLoS ONE 10(11): e0143687. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0143687

Jordan, R. et al. (February 2015) Citizen Science as a Distinct Field of Inquiry. BioScience 65 (2): 208-211. doi: 10.1093/biosci/biu217

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