how to do citizen science

The other day I was involved in a discussion on setting up a ‘citizen science’ program. The people asking the questions were looking at developing outreach: giving talks, helping with local science-y initiatives, setting up websites, & so on. I responded that it all sounded good, and it was great that they were looking at ways of communicating about the science they were doing, but that it didn’t really sound like my understanding of the term ‘citizen science’. (I hasten to add that I’m not an expert: I do a lot of science communication, but this is not the same thing at all.)

The idea of citizen science has been around for quite some time – there are papers on the subject dating to the 90s – but in New Zealand I would hope it’s developing a higher profile in the scientific community with the advent of the NZ Science Challenges & their requirement to get ‘the public’ more engaged with the science that we’re doing in this country.

And under the citizen science model this requires some serious thinking about the logistics, because one thing it’s not, is scientists telling laypeople what they’ve been doing. Instead, it sees school children, their whanau, members of various community groups, all getting involved in an organised and coordinated way with the actual research: making observations, collecting data, viewing the results & discussing them with researchers, looking at how to apply them in their area. This is a lot more complex in terms of organisation than arranging to give a talk or write a pop-science article (or a blog!).

Jonathan SIlvertown defines a citizen scientist as “a volunteer who collects and/or processes data as part of a scientific enquiry” (2008: 467), and notes that such projects are becoming particularly common in ecology and environmental science. (And it’s not a new initative: Bonney et al (2009) point out that US lighthouse keepers got involved in collecting data on bird strikes back in the 1880s. Perhaps we could regard Charles Darwin as a citizen scientist, particularly at the beginning of his career – he certainly wasn’t doing it as part of a paying job!) He goes on to say that “[t]oday, most citizen scientists work with professional counterparts on projects that have been specifically designed or adapted to give amateurs a role, either for the educational benefit of the volunteers or for the benefit of the project. The best examples benefit both” (2008: 467). This makes it clear that planning to involve citizen scientists in a given project has to part of the initial project development; it can’t really be an add-on at the end. While many of the projects Silvertown lists are essentially surveys and censuses, Bonney et al (2009) provide a model for doing citizen science to answer particular scientific questions in a way that also enhances science literacy and engagement with the subject.

Bonney & his colleagues work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which over the years has seen the results of many ‘citizen-science’ projects published in a range of journals. At the same time they’ve noted increases in scientific literacy and engagement with science among many of their lay participants. These are very positive outcomes, and they’ve put together a model for setting up such initiatives and assessing their success. Commenting that “we have found that projects whose developers follow this model can simultaneously fulfil their goals of recruitment, research, conservation, and education“ (2009:979), Bonney & his team list the following steps/stages in setting up & running a successful citizen-science project:

1. Choose a scientific question – it will probably be one that stretches across a relatively long period of time, or a large geographic area.

2. Form a scientist/educator/technologist/evaluator team – this must include individuals from multiple disciplines – the scientist to develop the question, methodology & analysis tools; the educator to field-test methods with the participants, develop support materials, etc; and so on.

3. Develop, test, and refine protocols, data forms, and educational support materials: it’s essential that participants receive clear protocols for collecting their data (using clear simple forms) & that they receive help in understanding those protocols and passing their data on to the researchers.

4. Recruit participants. How this is done is going to depend on whether the project is open to all or is intended for a particular cohort eg school students.

5. Train participants, so that they gain confidence in their ability to collect and submit data, & know they’ll be supported as and when necessary.

6. Accept, edit, and display data. “Whether a project employs paper or electronic data forms, all of the information must be accepted, edited, and made available for analysis, not only by professional scientists but also by the public. Indeed, allowing and encouraging participants to manipulate and study project data is one of the most educational features of citizen science” [my emphasis].

7. Analyse and interpret data. This can be tricky due to the often ‘coarse’ nature of the data-sets collected by participants,  & made more so if there are (for example) errors due to species mis-identification or misunderstanding of protocols.

8. Disseminate results. While this will involve scientific publications, it’s also important – & essential – that the results and their interpretation & application are also communicated with the citizen scientists who helped to generate them. Feedback is important!

9. Measure outcomes. These will be both scientific and educational. The former are fairly straightforward to quantify: number of papers published, conference presentations given, or students successfully completing theses, for example. The educational outcomes may be harder to define, but Bonney et al suggest assessing things like the length of time people were involved with the project; how often they accessed web sites associated with the project; whether their understanding of the science content improved over the duration of the research; whether their understanding of the nature of science was enhanced; positive changes in attitudes towards science; better science-related skills; the number of participants stating increased interest in a career in science.

Doing all this will of necessity require education or social science research techniques, so there’s someone else to add to the team. And yes, there are costs to projects like these, in dollar terms but also in terms of the time taken to set up a rigorous project with benefits for all involved. But there is potential for those benefits to be significant, for all parties concerned.

R.Bonney, C.B.Cooper, J.Dickinson, S.Kelling, T.Phillips, K.V.Rosenberg & J.Shirk (2009) Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. Bioscience 59(11):977-984

J.Silvertown (2008) A new dawn for citizen science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24(9): 467-471

7 thoughts on “how to do citizen science”

  • Thanks Alison for that informative post. I’m one of the people behind NatureWatch NZ (, perhaps the largest ecology/natural history citizen science project focused on New Zealand. Our site lets people keep an online dairy of the species they see and get help identifying the ones they don’t know.
    We’re about building a big repository of biodiversity data for answering all sorts of questions while at the same time increasing New Zealanders’ engagement with nature. Some people are recording things in a methodological way but most are just posting things that interest them. Both types of data are useful (depending on the science question).
    We’ve been running for just over a year (replacing the old NZBRN system from 2006) and almost 550 people have amassed over 30,000 observations of over 5000 taxa including over 50,000 photos, many of species never before seen on the internet. Amongst these are all sorts of discoveries of new species to New Zealand (including one new native moss and many invertebrates not previously known to be here) and some substantial range expansions of pests and weeds.
    In many ways we don’t meet all of the bullet points of Bonney et al. (2009). We’re not focused on a single question, although users can set up projects focused on single questions. We’re also only focused on the discovery and identification end of natural history. We expect the analysis and interpretation to largely be done off site by others (and our data’s all freely available, usually with a creative commons license).
    It’s for these reasons that I’m still a bit uncomfortable with applying the phrase “citizen science” to NatureWatch NZ and similar projects, although I do it all the time as the phrase is well entrenched now. Most of what people are doing in citizen science projects is not science, it’s making observations. Which is no less important or useful. It just means they’re not citizens being scientists, in the hypothesis falsifying, self-skeptical meaning of scientist. They’re people interested in the world around them and keen to help build a bigger picture.
    For us, it’s all about discovery and documenting nature and its changes. That’s something lots of citizens are interested in and are often exceptionally good at. And it’s is a very important thing to be doing in a world of rapid environmental change and poorly described biodiversity.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Thanks so much, Jon – it’s great to hear from you & about the NatureWatchNZ project.
    I agree with you that individuals involved in these projects may not be ‘doing’ science in the meaning you describe. But science needs observations, & so they’re involved in the broader sense (which is why it’s so important for us to ‘pay it back’ via making the results of their work freely available, as you are doing).
    Would you be interested in expanding your comment into a guest post here?

  • Thanks Alison. I agree completely. For NatureWatch NZ, I see it as the high tech modern version of natural history. A lot of it is more description than hypothesis driven science, answering questions like what species are where, what flowers when, what eats what, what’s spreading and what’s declining, etc. It’s all important stuff as we know very little about the basic natural history of most NZ species.
    Science can then use the data to test hypotheses, e.g., “global warming is causing native plants to flower earlier” or “native terrestrial bird diversity is tightly coupled with landscape native forest cover.”
    Yes, and I’d be happy to write a guest post on this topic if you’re interested. Thanks for the invitation.
    Have you come across our Lincoln University ecology and evolution blog, EcoLincNZ, at blog,

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Much to my embarrassment I hadn’t seen your blog before 🙁 but I’ve bookmarked it now!
    And yes, would be delighted to have a guest post from you.

  • Hi Alison
    There are a proliferation of terms to describe citizens and the way they engage in science – Bonney et al. have moved away from citizen science and into PPSR – public participation in scientific research – which while being more accurate doesn’t really have the snappy alliteration of citizen science.
    The research I’m carrying out for my PhD really is more about citizens doing science – it’s about community groups using science-based methods to measure the success of their restoration projects.
    It’s proving to be a timely area of study – there is significant onus on community groups to do more on the ground, engage more in decision-making that affects the environment and to justify that dollars provided by funders have had meaningful outcomes. Phew.
    At the heart of this are the twin strands of democratising science and scientific literacy. I still feel that many scientists misinterpret the former as ‘dumbing down’ science. It’s really about presenting technical information better AND providing enough support.Personally I’m fed up with powerpoints that include the sentence “I know you can’t read the numbers but…” ?!. That’s just well, dumb.
    I am still to be convinced that the current restructuring of DOC will improve much needed assistance for the community… at any rate, my data from nearly 300 community groups spread across NZ clearly show that it’s actually Regional Councils who help community groups carry out their restoration projects more so than DOC.
    I agree with Bonney’s ingredients for a successful citizen science programme – while it’s a real challenge to tick all boxes, the benefits are significant – that’s not just my lowly opinion but one that’s backed up in vast amounts of literature over the last decade on the subject. In the end, what ever you want to call it, citizen science, achieves what couldn’t be achieved otherwise.

  • I was listening to a talk by a science communicator in last week’s Science Teller event. A point he made was that local (non-scientist) interest groups were very knowledgeable and useful.
    I’d guess most of these groups are more useful in knowing established ‘fact’ and in observations, especially from their local region (and bringing these observations to attention).
    They’re perhaps less useful for the cutting-edge research aspects. Aside from the funding and time needed, another stumbling block is likely to be access to the research literature; access both in the sense of physical access (i.e. subscription v. open-access journals, access to university libraries) and the nature of the writing.
    The speaker was talking about presenting wildlife to children, especially insects. As a ‘reverse’ example, I am interested in control of use of our genes. Each cell type uses a different subset of genes. Insects have an additional fascinating feature: their genomes not only code for molecules used to make different types of cells, they also are able to instruct the development of entirely different body plans, e.g. worker bees v. queen bees or soldier/guard ants v. workers.
    If I were to decide to brush up on, say, the ‘social’ aspect of insect life to relate to the epigenetics that in turn relates to the different uses of the genomes of each body form of a particular species of insect I’m sure that (most of) the (primary) literature would be a struggle for me too.
    (I pick out primary, as it’s likely at least some of the review papers are a little more accessible, as they’re intended to be read by those new to an area or by those in ‘adjacent’ fields.)
    There’s more I could say, but I’ll leave it at this. It seems to me that there is a place for more involvement from those outside of the institutions.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Hi Monica – lovely to hear from you, & great to hear that ‘citizen science’ in NZ is the focus of your PhD. Your findings will be really valuable, given the pressure on community groups that you’ve identified, & also the Science Challenges focus on public engagement. (My main concern, in the discussion that sparked my post, was on the focus of ‘telling’ people stuff rather than involving/engaging with them in the actual ‘doing’ where possible.)

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