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Science Europe Briefing Paper
on Citizen Science
June 2018

June 2018 ‘Science Europe Briefing Paper on Citizen Science’: D/2018/13.324/2 Author: Science Europe For further information please contact [email protected] © Copyright Science Europe 2018. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original authors and source are credited, with the exception of logos and any other content marked with a separate copyright notice. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.



The Evolution of Citizen Science:

Definition, Categorisation and Academic Recognition


Citizen Science Around the World


Citizen Science Policy


Examples of Citizen Science


The Future of Citizen Science


Ten Principles of Citizen Science


Selected Further Information


Notes and References



Citizen science, also referred to as community science or public participation in scientific research, is a growing movement that enlists the public in scientific discovery, monitoring, and experimentation across a wide range of disciplines.
The term citizen science was first used in the mid-1990s by social scientist Alan Irwin in the UK to emphasise the responsibility of science to society, and by ornithologist Rick Bonney in the US to describe the contribution of citizens to observations or efforts to the scientific enterprise. There are different approaches to categorising citizen science projects depending on participation, investment of time and resources, project approach, and depth of engagement.
Citizen science is increasingly considered as a discipline in its own right. Since around 2010 there has been a significant increase in published articles from citizen science projects. Main fields of study are biology, ecology, and conservation, with the largest scientific output in ornithology, astronomy, meteorology, and microbiology.
The practice of citizens performing science and of scientists working together with citizens occurs in many different countries and in many different ways. It predates the use of the term ‘citizen scientist’ or ‘citizen science’ and is on the increase around the world. In some countries, for example Austria and Switzerland, the term ‘citizen science’ is so novel that it is not translated. Citizen science is widespread in the US, which has the highest percentage of members of the Citizen Science Association. The US is relatively advanced in policy support for citizen science, including within government agencies. The most coherent voice for citizen science in Europe is the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA). Of all EU member states, Germany is arguably most advanced in its citizen science policy.

Citizen science is described by the European Commission under Open Science. It has commissioned White Papers, Green Papers, and In-depth reports on citizen science. In reality, the JRC of the EC ‘practice’ citizen science. A survey on EU-wide citizen science conducted in 2016 reveal the vast majority of projects participants located in the UK and Germany with most projects in the field of life sciences and most funding coming from national sources. There are 1000s of examples of citizen science active, inactive and open for participation projects. Citizen Science is a developing tool for expanding scientific literacy. In combining research with public education, citizen science addresses broader societal impacts by engaging members of the public in research at various stages in the scientific process and using modern communications tools of participation. The general public support citizen science but are more confident in science findings from professional scientists. When scientists collaborate with citizens, they are motivated mostly by their interest in promoting research and obtaining funding as opposed to a desire to engage with the public. Over the past 20 years, several new developments in information science – especially in data informatics, graphical user interfaces, and geographic information system-based web applications, have been vital to the emergence of citizen science. Future projects will be increasingly networked using open science and online computer/video gaming as important tools to engage non-traditional audiences. A more formalised approach of citizen science is emerging with networked organisations, associations, journals, and cyberinfrastructure that will help address issues such as prioritisation, peer-review, intellectual property rights and sustainable funding.

The Evolution of Citizen Science: Definition, Categorisation, and Academic Recognition
A policy report1 cites the first recorded example of the use of the term ‘citizen science’ as being by R. Kerson in the magazine MIT Technology Review from January 19892 with a description of how 225 volunteers across the US collected rain samples to assist the Audubon Society in an acid-rain awareness raising campaign. The volunteers collected samples, checked for acidity, and reported back to the organisation. The information was then used to demonstrate the full extent of the phenomenon.
It is, however, generally cited that the term citizen science was first used in 1995 by social scientist Alan Irwin in the UK (currently Professor at the Department of Organisation, Copenhagen Business School) to describe expertise that exists among those who are traditionally seen as ignorant ‘lay people’.3 Irwin described two dimensions of the relationship between citizens and science: 1) that science should be responsive to citizens’ concerns and needs; and 2) that citizens themselves could produce reliable scientific knowledge. The ornithologist Rick Bonney in the US (currently Director of Programme Development and Evaluation, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University), unaware of Irwin’s work, defined citizen science as a research technique in which non-scientists voluntarily contribute scientific data to a project.4 This describes a more limited role for citizens in scientific research than Irwin’s conception of the term.
Cooper and Lewenstein5 discuss these two meanings or strands of citizen science. The first strand, from Irwin’s definition, emphasises the responsibility of science to society, which they call “democratic” citizen science. At the other end of the spectrum, the second strand, is “participatory” citizen science in which people mostly contribute observations or efforts to the scientific enterprise, a meaning that originated with Rick Bonney’s (1996) work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Bonney6 suggests that future iterations of the citizen science definition should highlight the diversity, scale, and value of citizen science projects from both strands. Ceccaroni et al.7 focus on the convergence of these viewpoints to define citizen science in relation to civic education as work undertaken with citizen communities to advance science, foster a broad scientific mentality, and/or encourage democratic engagement, which helps society address complex modern problems.
In 2005 Wikipedia defined citizen science as “a project (or ongoing program of work) which aims to make scientific discoveries, verify scientific hypotheses, or gather data which can be used for scientific purposes, and which involves large numbers of people, many of whom have no specific scientific training.”
The term citizen science entered the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014, defined as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.” This definition fails to consider the broader use of the term as initially coined by Irwin. A ‘citizen scientist’ is defined as: (a) “a scientist whose work is characterised by a sense of responsibility to serve the best interests of the wider community (now rare)”; or (b) “a member of the general public who engages in scientific work, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions; an

amateur scientist.” The first use of the term ‘citizen scientist’ can be found in the magazine New Scientist in an article about ufology from October 1979.8

There are different approaches to categorising citizen science projects. In a review9 of over 200 citizen science projects, scientists working on behalf of the UK Environmental Observation Framework split environmentally-focused projects described as citizen science according to their degree of mass participation (local or mass) and ‘thoroughness’ (a measure of investment of time and resources). Other strategies classify citizen science projects according to their approach. Wiggins and Crowston, for example, propose a typology10 dividing citizen science into action, conservation, investigation, virtual, and education. Haklay’s scheme11 classifies citizen science projects based on the depth of their engagement with volunteers, within a four-level framework of participation. At level 4, so-called extreme citizen science, citizens are involved at all stages in the development of the project and work to achieve their own goals. Extreme citizen science can include projects where citizens are the driving force behind the research and professional scientists are not involved at all. Level 3 is termed participatory science. Participants are involved in steering the direction of the research from problem definition to data collection. Level 2 includes distributed intelligence. Projects include Galaxy Zoo and eBird (an online birding project), which may provide participants with some basic skills before asking them to collect and potentially interpret data. Finally, level 1 is termed Crowdsourcing. These are the least participatory projects and use volunteers simply as a means to collect data from distributed sensors, or to provide computing power. Table A shows how the three aforementioned schemes can be used to classify a select number of citizen science projects.

Table A Classifying citizen science projects


Project and brief description Wiggins & Crowston

Roy et al.

Galaxy Zoo Classifying images of galaxies


Mass Contributory

eBird Collecting bird observations


Mass Contributory

What’s Invasive Locating invastive plants


Mass Contributory

ReClam the Bay Restoring local bay’s clams and oysters


Local Community-led

Corfe Mullen Bio-blitz Identifying species in Corfe Mullen village and local area

Investigation/ Education

Local Co-created Volunteers’ computers used to run climate prediction models


Mass Contributory

Haklay Level 2 Distributed Intelligence Level 2 Distributed Intelligence Level 2 Distributed Intelligence
Level 3 Participatory Science
Level 3 Participatory Science
Level 1 Crowdsourcing

University College London’s has an Extreme Citizen Science research group (UCL ExCiteS) that brings together scholars from diverse fields to develop and contribute to the guiding theories, tools and methodologies that will enable any community to start a Citizen Science project to deal with


issues that concern them. Their website12 provides several examples of Extreme Citizen Science: the ExCiteS project13 that ran from 2011 to 2016 demonstrated how non-literate people and those with limited technical literacy can successfully participate in formulating research questions and collecting the data that is important to them. ExCiteS started with the case of supporting Pygmy hunter-gatherers, local NGOs and other local indigenous partners to tackle illegal logging in the Congo basin. It quickly expanded to Namibia, Brazilian Amazon, and cases in the UK to support several local communities in their aim to combine their local environmental knowledge with scientific analysis to improve environmental management.
Citizen science is increasingly considered as a discipline in its own right. Examples of academic groups collaborating in this field include:
Citizen Cyberscience Centre14 is a Swiss partnership involving CERN, the UN Institute for Training and Research and the University of Geneva. Citizen Cyberlab develops and studies new forms of public participation in research. It initiates projects and organises events that encourage citizens and scientists to collaborate in new ways to solve major challenges.
Open Air Laboratories (OPAL)15 is a UK-wide citizen science network led by Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum in the UK. It develops activities and resources, including national surveys, which encourages participants to get closer to their local environment while collecting scientific data.



402 400

353 200,000

294 300







150 124





41 38 46

1 0 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 1 1 2 2 3 2 4 6 2 7 11 13 19 19 0













50,000 0

Figure 1

Growth of Citizen Science publications compared to Web of Science total. Source: Kullenberg and Kasperowski16

Until recently, the literature on citizen science has been scattered across scientific journals. Much of it exists under different labels, such as ‘peer-to-peer’ science, participatory science, community science, community based research, public participation in research, crowdsourced science, and so on. The diversity of literature and labels means that few practitioners or scholars realise how broad the field is. Most citizen science projects fall outside the scope of scientometric evaluation, since scientific output is not a main goal. However, Kullenberg and Kasperowski have recently analysed data from Web of Science to understand the evolution of citizen science.16 They observe


a slow increase in the use of the concept from around 2000 (Fig. 1). From around 2010 there is a significant increase in published articles coinciding with several digital citizen science projects that use web-platforms such as Galaxy Zoo.17 They find that main fields of study employing citizen science are to be found in biology, ecology, and conservation research, and increasingly in the social sciences and geography. In quantitative terms, the largest scientific output is to be found in the fields of ornithology, astronomy, meteorology, and microbiology.
In terms of prioritisation of research topics, although there are biases in citizen science sampling efforts relative to abundance on Earth, these biases are consistent with biases found in professional science (Figure 2).18 For example, although occupation on earth increases from freshwater to terrestrial to marine areas, freshwater to terrestrial are far more popular than marine studies (see bottom right inset C in Figure 2).

Proportion Proportion

(A) 1.0

Described species

Citizen Science






Protozoa Bacteria Fungi Algae

(B) Described species 1.0

Citizen Science Orthoptera

0.8 Lepidoptera




0.2 Invertebrates

0.0 n = 1,068,503

Fishes Amphibians




Area on Earth Terrestrial

n = 155

Hymenoptera Odonata Diptera Coleoptera Myriapoda Crustacea
Chelcerata Echinodermata Annelida

Citizen Science

0.0 n = 1,829,582

n = 388

n = 421



Marine Total Area = 510,073,024 sq km

n = 388

Figure 2

Taxonomic and ecosystem representation of citizen science projects relative to mainstream science. Source: Theobald et al.18

While the definition of citizen science and project categorisation is still under debate, it is clear that citizen science in practice and in theory have evolved over the past four decades. In the last two years, a transformation has occurred. Citizen science has appeared in Nature and in Science. New citizen science associations have begun in Europe, the United States, and Australia. A new journal, Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, has been launched. Citizen science is spreading all over the world.

Key messages
The term citizen science was first used in the mid-1990s by a social scientist Alan Irwin in the UK to emphasise the responsibility of science to society and an ornithologist Rick Bonney in the US to describe the contribution of citizens to observations or efforts to the scientific enterprise.
There are different approaches to categorising citizen science projects e.g. depending on participation, investment of time and resources, project approach, depth of engagement.


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Science Europe Briefing Paper