In very simple terms, citizen science involves scientific projects that have been carried out with the help of, or entirely by, interested amateurs. These citizen scientists formulate research questions, report observations, take measurements, assess data and/or write publications. One requirement is maintaining scientific criteria. Not only does this bring about new scientific projects and new knowledge, but so too does it create a dialogue between the scientific community and society, which is otherwise not possible or very difficult.
Citizen science does not currently have a more precise standard definition. This has been the case since the mid-1990s, when Alan Irwin (UK) and Rick Bonney (USA) used the term independently of each other and shaped it for themselves.
For Alan Irwin, citizen science means the development of concepts for the scientific community, which are characterised by necessity and open up science and research policy to the general population. By this, Irwin wanted science not to be indifferent to the needs of society and he also wanted citizens to be able to pursue meaningful science themselves.
Rick Bonney defined citizen science as amateurs participating in scientific projects for the purpose of data collection (crowdsourcing).
As this discussion is very widespread and will certainly continue for longer, we quickly set up the working group for quality criteria for the Österreich forscht platform. This group then developed criteria that can be found on their website. On the one hand, the developed criteria guarantee and increase the quality of citizen science projects on the platform and, on the other hand, provide citizens with the assurance that all of the projects listed on the Österreich forscht website are carried out in accordance with objective and traceable quality criteria. We also used these quality criteria as the basis for publishing an opinion piece in the PNAS journal, so as to initiate a discussion on an internationally effective definition of citizen science. The responses to this, and the opinion piece itself, can be found under this blog entry.
We provide a brief overview of the various concepts in Austria at the end of this article, with a video series that was put together during the 2017 Austrian citizen science conference. In the conclusion, you can find different ways to participate in citizen science projects, as according to Muki Haklay and the white paper on citizen science by Sanz and colleagues.
This section will differentiate between the various levels of participation in professional science by so-called “amateurs”. The simplest version of participation can be found at level 1 “Crowdsourcing”, where citizens wear sensors that send data to professional scientists or even just make the processing power of their computer or smartphone available. Participants do not have to provide any cognitive performance in these kinds of projects. An example of this is seti@home.
More is required of participants at level 2 “Distributed intelligence”. In this case, participants are set primarily simple tasks that a computer cannot yet perform and would therefore take up a lot of time if scientists were to carry them out alone, such as assessing photos from camera traps. Projects in this category include, for example, projects on the Zooniverse.
Level three “Participatory science” refers to involving the public in the development of questions or problem statements and/or data collection. Amateurs are very quick to observe environmental changes in their surroundings and can forward this data to scientists through citizen science projects, where it will be prepared accordingly and published, or will be sent to the relevant authorities for analysis and interpretation. This means that collaboration with a citizen science project can contribute to a quick solution to a problem or to efficient detection of a change in the public. Examples of this include identifying types of animals and plants (Roadkill project, naturbeobachtung.at), studying genealogy (GenTeam) or contributing to historical research (Topotheque).
Level 4 is known as “Extreme citizen science” because amateurs are involved in all stages, from the problem statement to data collection to analysis. There are few examples of this, but they can be found primarily in astronomy and ornithology as these areas have a long tradition of citizen research.
The white paper, which is taken from the “Socientize” project, differentiates between several equal forms of participation by amateurs in scientific projects, unlike the aforementioned classification by Haklay (2013). The collective intelligence area concerns mainly pattern recognition. The Zooniverse projects mentioned above fall under this category.
Pooling of resources primarily deals with interested persons providing resources, such as unused processing power in their smartphone or computer. This can then be used so that complicated calculation processes can be carried out quickly by being divided across thousands of devices. The aforementioned project seti@home can be included here.
In data collection projects, amateurs collect data and send it to the project managers in different forms. Good examples of projects in this category from Austria include the StadtWildTiere project or ornitho.at. This is currently one of the most widespread methods of participation.
In analysis tasks, amateurs are primarily also involved in the analysis and evaluation of data, to varying levels. The Categories to come project can be mentioned here, in which people filter out and index by keyword sexual storylines from films and books using these to undertake an initial analysis.
There has been a major development in the field of serious games in recent years. In this concept, which is also known as gamification, participants contribute to scientific projects through active playing that mostly consists of solving tricky problems or identifying patterns. On the one hand, better algorithms can be developed through the analysis of approaches to solutions and, on the other hand, data can be collected directly in this way. A known international example of this kind of project is the foldit project.
With participatory experiments, participants have already been involved in developing the problem statement and other project stages. These projects are often limited to a local level or are aimed at clearly defined target groups. The Tell us project is a good example of this from Austria.
Grassroots activities are generally found in the DIY movement. They are often supported by collectives or associations, frequently have a social aspect and can also be entirely carried out and supported by amateurs. The Safecast project from Japan has attracted attention on an international scale.
Citizen science is often interpreted as professional science returning to its roots, as science was originally pursued by amateurs and was then later turned into an academic discipline and institutionalised in universities. Under the term “citizen science”, amateurs can now once again pursue science – as they say, "back to the roots" (Silvertown 2009; Finke 2014; Bonney et al. 2014). Counter to this, until scientific research was first integrated into universities in the second half of the 19th century through the Humboldtian model of higher education, those without a higher education degree could also pursue science, not to mention publish results, although this was only in the most exceptional cases. No farmer or tradesman had the time and money to dedicate to science. Charles Darwin is often described as the most famous amateur to pursue science (e.g. Silvertown, 2009). During his studies in medicine, and later in theology, Darwin also attended lectures on botany, zoology and geology for his own interest. When Darwin embarked on his famous journey on the HMS Beagle, he was employed as a scientifically trained passenger, although he was formally educated in theology (Engels, 2007). Darwin can thus be referred to as an amateur with extensive expertise in biology.
With the combination of citizen science, web 2.0 and the open access movement, it is now possible for considerably more people to participate in science than the exceptionally privileged few from Darwin’s era. They collect, analyse independently and even publish (e.g. Kalheber, 2003).
The following videos were created during the 2017 Austrian citizen science conference.
More information on citizen science in Austria and other countries can be found under the heading Worldwide.