Because good research needs good data

Citizen Science

By Monica Duke (UKOLN/DCC) in collaboration with the Patients Participate! project

Published: 1 October 2012

Please cite as: Duke, M. (2012). ‘Citizen Science’. DCC Briefing Papers. Edinburgh: Digital Curation Centre. Available online: /resources/briefing-papers

Browse the paper below or download the pdf

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Citizen Science is a term used for initiatives in which volunteers, including the general public and enthusiasts, engage in research-related tasks to collect information or participate in scientific research in other ways (e.g. observation, measurement or computation). As well as increasing the resources available to collect or analyse research data, citizen science makes a positive contribution to the public’s engagement with science. Although the existence of projects that involve the public can be traced over several decades, there has been a recent explosion in the number and variety of citizen science projects that create and capture scientific information. Projects such as Wikipedia and GalaxyZoo have exploited the potential for engaging communities of volunteers through online methods with dramatic effect.

Short-term Benefits and Long-term Value

Citizen Science projects are perceived to have benefits both for research and for the participants who engage in the project. Citizen science is seen to benefit research projects and data collection by helping to accomplish tasks which otherwise might not be feasible.

This can happen by:

  • increasing the resources available for dealing with large-scale data [1]
  • making data collection more comprehensive
  • reducing costs [2]
  • serendipitous discovery from exposing data to large numbers of users [3].

Citizen Science can also be considered a tool for public education about specific sciences and the scientific method, helping to promote scientific literacy, and it brings new voices to the research process.

Potential benefits for the participants in citizen science projects include:

  • enjoyment, finding a social community [4]
  • being able to participate in real science, contact with scientists, experiencing the process of science [5]
  • acquiring confidence and skills, increased knowledge of specific topics [6].

Additionally, benefits to society as a whole may result from closer connections between scientists and the public.

Perspectives on Citizen Science

‘Crowdsourcing is a natural solution to many of the problems that scientists are dealing with that involve massive amounts of data’

- Haym Hirsh, director of the Division of Information and Intelligent Systems at the National Science Foundation (2010)

‘It’s not some fun game online while the scientists do the real work … I hope visitors are learning that science is not just something done by people in lab coats in some underground bunkers. Science is something people can get involved in.’

- Chris Lintott, Galaxy Zoo (2010)

Both quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education

‘I am a biology teacher … in the Netherlands and I admire Queen’s guitarist and astrophysicist Dr Brian May. He mentioned on his website … that people were sought to help a group of scientists classify galaxies … The task was to look at beautiful images of galaxies taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and click the button that best described the form of the galaxy shown. Within a week, I got a picture on my screen that changed my life … It’s a lot of fun to see how all this works … Reporters from all over the world are still interested and I’m also still giving lectures on my discovery … I grew into being a science communicator … Citizen Science Rocks’

- Hanny van Arkel (2011) writing in Astronomy Now

Roles and Responsibilities

Project management, participant engagement and data management must be addressed in the setting up and running of a citizen science project. Procedures are needed for establishing goals. They will normally be set by the team behind the initiative, although participants may be included at a later stage. Plans are required for recruitment and marketing, to establish how to identify and reach target communities [7].

The project team must think about how and why people will be motivated to participate and collect data [8]. Training for the participants may be needed, and retention is equally important. Tools and frameworks may help to invite and encourage active participation. Data management activities include: determining how and what type of data is to be collected, techniques for data validation, data archiving, preservation and authentication, identifying appropriate methods for interacting with the data and defining how the collected data will be shared.

The RunCoCo project [9] at the University of Oxford synthesised their advice into an ABC of sustainability: 

Aim for two-way engagement (ensure contribution benefits the participants, contributors and the volunteers as well as the institution)

Be part of your community (particularly through online presence) and

Challenge your assumptions (recognise the value that non-specialists bring and aim for equity of engagement, providing interest and motivation for people who might not normally use technology.)

Issues to be Considered

Strategic issues for institutions and the research community

  • Understanding how research groups can best make use of citizen science, how it will benefit them and their stakeholders
  • Deciding which projects are best suited to citizen science
  • Developing resources for sharing experiences, and learning from each other to save on time, resource and expense [10].

Motivating participants

There is a lack of research on the motivation of volunteers particularly in projects which are conducted through on-line interaction [11] [12]. Motivation is described as being either intrinsic (e.g. improvement of skills) or extrinsic (e.g. fun and intellectual stimulation), and the motivation can be specific to the type of project [13]. Other factors that influence contributions include social network effects and feedback to participants. It is suggested that more study is needed to learn who participates in citizen science and what motivates them. Taking an active part in your community, as suggested by RunCoCo, can help to understand what motivates your ‘crowd’.

Data quality

Weaknesses in citizen science can lead to poor data quality. Data quality can be affected by limited knowledge or training of contributors and their relative anonymity, non-standardised or poorly designed methods of data collection, or lack of commitment from volunteers [14]. Research is needed into what tasks and datasets are most appropriate and pilot studies are recommended. Data can be validated by comparison with valid data, using social networks [15] and seeding data with good examples to raise standards [16]. The needs of the users of the data must be considered [17].

Engaging participants

Galaxy Zoo provides an example of the successful use of mainstream media to attract volunteers; they also recommend the use of forums to help participants interact and support each other [18]; PatientsLikeMe prioritises patient-patient interactions over expert-mediated forms of engagement [19].

Competitive element

Some projects employ a rating system to record contributions, which introduces competitive credit into the community, with a league of top participants. This may be seen to motivate volunteers. However others suggest that monitoring of low-rated contributions should only be used to direct additional training or support [20].

Effects on participants

These should be monitored and studied to find out what participants have learned about the science content and the science process, and how attitudes have changed.

Finally, there are many other different ways in which the public can be involved in the research agenda, besides data collection or content creation. These include setting the research agenda, interpreting research and disseminating research findings.

Related Research

Runcoco was a JISC-funded project on how to run a community collection, where the general public or members of a particular community are invited to contribute to a project by uploading their own content or adding information to existing resources. The project provided training events, information, guidance, and software for others wishing to run their own Community Collection
initiative. Although the project is no longer funded, the website provides useful information. Any further support would need to be provided by agreement.

The Research Communications Strategy Project on open research has a final project report, briefing paper and video interviews from their project on current thinking and practice around open science and citizen science in the UK.

Galaxy Zoo is a mature open science example which has developed a community of amateur astronomers who collectively help to classify galaxies via customised user interfaces, successfully combining human observational and pattern recognition capacity with categorisation capability. The public work alongside disciplinary experts, in a truly global initiative, to collaboratively help map the universe [21].

PatientsLikeMe is a site where patients can anonymously share their personal treatments, symptoms, progression and outcome data. The site has 40,000 patients organised around disease communities, and seeks to answer the questions that patients have around best outcomes, with tools and features designed to answer those questions. The site collaborates with industry and researchers to carry out market research and promote clinical trials. Patients can also participate in experiments and are involved in collecting adverse effect data.

Transcribe Bentham transcribe-bentham/ is a project based at University College London that involves the public in online transcription of manuscripts by Jeremy Bentham (‘1748-1832’), founder of utilitarianism. The aim is to turn them into a digital collection that is more widely accessible. The transcription desk running on mediawiki is at the heart of the operation. Interaction with other participants happens through a social profile and a discussion forum. There is the opportunity to be accredited in the Collected Works being produced as a project output.

Further Information and Bibliography

Alabri, A., Hunter, J. (2010). ‘Enhancing the Quality and Trust of Citizen Science Data’, Sixth IEEE International Conference on e–Science, Brisbane, December 7-10, 2010. doi: 10.1109/eScience.2010.33

Brossard, D., Lewenstein, B., and Bonney, R. (2005). ‘Scientific knowledge and attitude change: The impact of a citizen science project’, International Journal of Science Education, vol.27, no.9, 2005, pp.1099-1121. doi: 10.1080/09500690500069483

Brownstein, C. A., Brownstein, J. S., Williams, D. S., Wicks, P., and Heywood, J. A. (2009). ‘The power of social networking in medicine’, Nature Biotechnology, vol.27, no.10, pp.888-890. Nature Publishing Group. doi: 10.1038/nbt1009-888

Cooper, C. B., Dickinson, J., Phillips, T., and Bonney, R. (2007). ‘Citizen Science as a Tool for Conservation in Residential Ecosystems’, Ecology And Society, vol.2, no.2, art.11. Retrieved 29 September 2011, from " title=">">>

Currier, Sarah (2011) Open Science and Research Communications [online]. Centre for Research Communications. Retrieved 29 September 2011, from>

Duke, M and Tonkin, E. Usability Factors in Citizen Science [online]. UKOLN. Retrieved 18 September 2012, from

INVOLVE (2012) Briefing Notes for researchers:  involving the public in NHS, public health, and social care research. INVOLVE, Eastleigh. [online] Retrieved 22 October 2012 from

Kim, S., Robson, C., Zimmerman, T., Pierce, J., Haber, E. M., Road, H., and Ca, S. J. (2011). ‘Creek Watch: Pairing Usefulness and Usability for Successful Citizen Science’. Technology, pp. 2125-2134. Retrieved 29 September 2011, from¬crobson.pdf>

Lindsay, K., Keen, A. (2010) Debate Should the general public be involved in academic research? [online] JISC Inform, issue 27, Spring
2010. Retrieved 29 September 2011 from>

Lyon, Liz. (2009) Open Science at web-scale: Optimising participation and predictive potential [online]. UKOLN. Retrieved 29 September 2011, from>

Moy, C. L., Locke, J. R., Coppola, B. P., and McNeil, A. J. (2010). ‘Improving Science Education and Understanding through Editing Wikipedia’. Journal of Chemical Education, vol.87, no.11, pp.1159-1162. American Chemical Society. doi: 10.1021/ed100367v

National co-ordinating centre for public engagement. Method: Engaging the public as researchers. [online] Retrieved 7 October 2011, from>

Nov, O., Arazy, O., and Anderson, D. (2011) ‘Technology-Mediated Citizen Science Participation: A Motivational Model’. Proceedings of the Fifth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM 2011), July, 2011. Barcelona, Spain. Retrieved 07 October 2011, from

Paulos, E. (2009). ‘Designing for Doubt: Citizen Science and the Challenge of Change’. Engaging Data, 2009. Retrieved 29 September 2011, from>.

Raddick, M. J., Bracey, G., Carney, K., Gyuk, G., Borne, K., Wallin, J., Jacoby, S., et al. (2009). ‘Citizen Science: Status and Research Directions for the Coming Decade’. AGB Stars and Related Phenomena Astro2010 The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey. Retrieved 29 September 2011, from>.

Raddick, M. J., Bracey, G., Gay, P. L., Lintott, C. J., Murray, P., Schawinski, K., Szalay, A. S., et al. (2009). ‘Galaxy Zoo: Exploring the Motivations of Citizen Science Volunteers’. Astronomy Education Review, vol.9, no.1, 15. AAS. Retrieved 29 September 2011, from>

RunCoCo project, University of Oxford (2011) Final Report: How To Run A Community Collection Online. Retrieved 29 September 2011, from>

Young, J.R. (2010) Crowd Science Reaches New Heights [online]. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 5 September 2011, from>.

Van Arkel, H. BBC World Service Science in Action. (interview: relevant section starts at 23:24 of the recording). Retrieved 29 September 2011, from>

Van Arkel, H. Citizen Science CyberSumm (interviewed by eScienceTalk) Retrieved 29 September 2011, from http://>. The Citizen Cyberscience Summit and some press. Associated blog post. Retrieved 29 September 2011, from>.


The Patients Participate! Project investigated the feasibility of the production of lay summaries of research using a crowdsourcing model. The seven-month project held a workshop, and produced reports, case studies and guides. Further information is available from the project website

This resource was produced by the Patients Participate! Project which was funded by the JISC eContent Programme 2011

Thanks to Alun Edwards, Project Manager, RunCoCo, University of Oxford, and Michael Day, DCC/UKOLN, University of Bath for helpful comments.


1. Raddick (2009 Citizen Science)
2. Alabri (2010)
3. Currier (2011)
4. Raddick (2009 Citizen Science)
5. ibid.
6. Brossard (2005)
7. Cooper (2007)
8. Paulos (2009)
9. RunCoCo, University of Oxford (2011)
10. Currier (2011)
11. Raddick (2009 Galaxy Zoo)
12. Nov (2011)
13. ibid.
14. Alabri (2010)
15. ibid.
16. Kim (2011)
17. ibid.
18. Raddick (2009 Galaxy Zoo)
19. Brownstein (2009)
20. Alabri (2010)