What is Citizen Science?

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Citizen science refers to a collaborative approach to scientific research that actively involves individuals who are not professional scientists. This diverse group includes students from schools and universities, members of various organizations, individuals representing specific social demographics (like senior citizens or locals from the research area), hobbyist researchers, and generally any interested non-professionals. These citizen researchers contribute at various stages of research, including designing the study, formulating research questions, collecting and generating data (their most common role), analyzing data, and interpreting results. This inclusive methodology broadens the scope and perspective of scientific inquiry.

To qualify as research projects, citizen science initiatives must adhere to the core principles of scientific research. These include maintaining honesty and objectivity, upholding integrity, exercising caution, being receptive to peer critique and judgment, respecting intellectual property rights, ensuring confidentiality, among other ethical and professional standards. This adherence ensures the credibility and validity of the research conducted within these projects.

Citizen science, a term without a single, definitive meaning, was shaped by different perspectives in the 1990s. British sociologist Alan Irwin viewed it as an essential process of opening science and its policies to the broader community. He outlined this relationship in two aspects: firstly, science should address the concerns and necessities of the wider community, and secondly, the community should have an active role in science. Concurrently, American biologist and ornithologist Rick Bonney focused on the role of citizen researchers as volunteers, like amateur birdwatchers, who provide data for research. This perspective offers a narrower scope for citizen researchers compared to Irwin’s broader vision of their role in science and policy.

Terminology of citizen science

The recent surge in interest and emphasis on Citizen Science in Europe, the USA, and other regions presents Slovenia with an opportunity to engage in this movement. A key initial challenge was the accurate translation of the term, a task adeptly handled by academic Prof. Dr. Zdravko Mlinar. In his work, “What do the concept and movement of Citizen Science/Citizen Science bring to us?: promoting research as a component of everyday life,” Dr. Mlinar draws several conclusions, summarized as follows:

The translation of “citizen science” into languages where the term “citizen” carries a more limited meaning than in English often leads to interpretations like ‘science by citizens’, ‘science for citizens’, or simply ‘citizen science’. However, these translations might not fully capture the essence of the term as understood in English. For instance, Webster’s Dictionary defines a citizen as either an inhabitant of a city or a member of a community. This distinction between the scientist (subject) and the citizens (object) in the translation is less ideal. It misses the collaborative spirit of the concept, something that is increasingly being emphasized in the European Union’s broader discussion. The EU debate advocates moving from a “science for society” paradigm to a “science with society” approach, highlighting the inclusive and participatory nature of Citizen Science.

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“Amateur science” is another term frequently used in this context. The word “amateur” highlights the involvement of individuals driven by personal enjoyment, which may be independent of, or even contrary to, communal interests. The emotional aspect of motivation in research is undeniable; hobbies like collecting, which are pursued for leisure, closely resemble this. While such personal interest-driven activities can be a starting point, they represent only an initial step towards the broader concept of citizen science. Citizen science transcends mere personal enjoyment, incorporating a more collaborative and community-focused approach to scientific inquiry.
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While volunteering is a facet of citizen science, the conventional understanding of volunteering primarily resides in the socio-humanitarian domain, focusing on aiding people with their problems. This notion is further cemented by legal frameworks, such as those outlined in the Volunteering Act. Given that the term is already entrenched in this specific context, it becomes less fitting to represent the diverse aspects of citizen science. Moreover, ‘volunteering’ as a term is overly broad and fails to capture the unique characteristic of citizen science as a community-driven research activity. Therefore, labeling citizen science as ‘voluntary science’ is not suitable, as it does not adequately convey the essence of collaborative scientific exploration and contribution within a community setting.
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The use of terms like “non-professional science” or “non-professional research” for citizen science is not fitting, as they carry a negative connotation similar to “non-scientific” in the binary of scientific vs. non-scientific. These labels are misleading, particularly because citizen science often involves contributions from individuals who are indeed professionals in their respective fields, such as doctors, engineers, and biologists. These professionals engage in citizen science by collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data, merging their professional expertise with the principles of citizen science. The term “non-professional” wrongly implies a lack of skill or quality, which doesn’t align with the valuable contributions made by citizen scientists. An affirmative and empowering approach is more appropriate. This approach would recognize and encourage the sharing of ‘tacit know-how’ for the greater public good, highlighting the emancipatory aspect of citizen science. It should emphasize inclusivity and the value of diverse contributions, whether they come from professional scientists or the engaged public. This orientation fosters a more collaborative and holistic view of scientific inquiry and knowledge generation.

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The term “citizen science” has increasingly been equated with “community science” in recent years, especially within Anglo-American social sciences. This terminology is often used when discussing topics like community science and community-based action research. The concept of community science emphasizes the importance of self-research, which effectively captures the social conditions, interests, and challenges of people within specific social settings and life domains, such as health, education, and aging. However, a potential issue with this term is its tendency to focus solely on the collective aspect, potentially overlooking the individual contributors – the subjects of the research. It’s crucial to maintain a balanced perspective that considers both the individual actors and the collective group. This balance is necessary to understand the dynamic interplay between individual experiences and broader social structures, as well as between personal contributions and community-wide impacts. Internationally, the usage and interpretation of the term “community science” have evolved. In Anglo-American contexts, the term has become less central. In contrast, within the European Union, “community science” has gained a more specific connotation, often referring to research initiatives commissioned by local communities. This distinction underlines the importance of understanding the nuances and evolving meanings of terms like “citizen science” and “community science” in different cultural and geographical contexts.

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The term “folk science” has also been used, but its suitability is questionable due to the historical and cultural connotations of the word “folk”. In one context, “folk” refers to a homogeneous group defined largely by shared origins. In another, particularly in the historical context of Yugoslavia, it denotes a form of enforced collectivism that downplayed internal diversity and individuality. Given these implications, “folk” carries with it notions of uniformity and a top-down approach to collective identity, which may not align well with the inclusive and diverse nature of citizen science. Citizen science ideally encompasses a wide range of participants from various backgrounds and expertise levels, working collaboratively rather than conforming to a singular identity or methodology. Therefore, the term “folk science” may not adequately or appropriately capture the essence and objectives of citizen science.
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The term “public science” is commonly used to describe a research approach that involves public engagement, drawing from two distinct traditions: participatory action research and science outreach. Participatory action research focuses on valuing and integrating knowledge from traditionally marginalized groups, such as farmers and immigrants. This approach emphasizes collaboration with these groups in the research process, recognizing their unique insights and experiences. On the other hand, science outreach, the second tradition, is more oriented towards science education and communication. It often involves projects conducted in public spaces like parks, libraries, and cafes, making science accessible and engaging to a broader audience. These activities aim to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public, fostering a greater understanding and appreciation of science. However, it is important to note that the term “public science” is not entirely unclaimed. It has been used in various contexts and carries with it specific connotations and historical usage. As a result, while it is a relevant term in the context of citizen science, its use requires careful consideration of its established meanings and implications in the realm of scientific research and public engagement.

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After a thorough examination of various alternatives, academician Prof. Dr. Mlinar concluded that the most fitting term in Slovene for “citizen science” is indeed ‘citizen science’ (and the related ‘citizen research’). This translation effectively encompasses the diverse aspects found in other terms, while importantly addressing both the individual and collective dimensions of research activities. According to the Slovene Dictionary, the literary interpretation of ‘citizen’ refers to a member of a human community, a definition that extends well beyond the narrow administrative-political context of a municipality. This broader interpretation aligns well with the inclusive and collaborative ethos of citizen science, highlighting its focus on engaging individuals from all walks of life in scientific endeavors and inquiry.

Mlinar, Zdravko (2021). Kaj nam prinašata koncept in gibanje občanska znanost/Citizen Science?: uveljavljanje raziskovanja kot sestavine vsakdanjega življenja. Časopis za kritiko znanosti, 2021, letnik 49, št. 282, str. 23-63.

History of citizen science

“citizen science,” though a relatively recent term, reflects practices deeply rooted in history. Before the 20th century, many individuals without formal qualifications conducted scientific research, often self-funded. Notable examples include Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin. Charles Darwin, trained as a theologian, had a profound early interest in nature which led him to work as a research biologist during the Beagle voyage, despite his theological background.

During British colonization in North America, American colonists who recorded weather phenomena became the first citizen explorers. Their records now serve as valuable data for studying climate change during that era.

An early instance of citizen science is the Christmas Bird Count, initiated by the National Audubon Society in 1900. This largest environmental wildlife census, involving over 60,000 volunteers annually, takes place from mid-December to early January each year.

Wells Woodbridge Cooke, an American biologist and American Ornithologists’ Union member, pioneered one of the first official citizen science programs in the late 19th century. He established a ‘cooperative bird migration study’ which evolved into a government bird phenology program that private citizens could join. This led to a volunteer network gathering data on migratory bird patterns and populations.

Research indicates that citizen science is most frequently applied in biology and ecology, mainly as a methodology for data collection and generation.

Until the mid-20th century, citizen science was predominantly led by professional researchers in universities and institutes. However, in the 1970s, Australian philosopher Paul Feyerabend advocated for the “democratisation of science,” and American biochemist Erwin Chargaff called for a return to science by amateur nature enthusiasts, in the spirit of historical figures like Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Buffon, and Darwin.

Professional researchers have often utilized citizen science for data collection and generation, tapping into networks of birdwatchers, insect observers, and other natural phenomenon watchers. The advent of the internet in the late 1990s was a turning point, facilitating data sharing and contributing to an increase in citizen science programs.

In recent years, the proliferation of smartphones has further accelerated the growth of citizen science. Modern devices equipped with cameras and GPS enable real-time data generation and geolocation, while some smartphones come with sensors to measure environmental factors like air quality and humidity.

Today, citizen science is increasingly recognized as a valid and serious research approach, backed by scientific research funders and technological advancements. New networks and communities of citizen researchers are constantly emerging, united in their goal to expand knowledge and understanding of our world.

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