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Citizen science and global biodiversity
Citizen science and global biodiversity

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7 How do we do it? Approaches to citizen science

Public involvement in science has moved on from being mostly about volunteers assisting with data collection. Today, citizen science helps people to understand and learn about science, providing a way for them to get involved in collecting and sometimes analysing data. It can also provide ongoing engagement and learning possibilities with a subject of interest. The ways in which citizen science projects involve participants, as well as their outputs, are key classification methods that can provide valuable information to determine how such initiatives can be implemented.

The three main approaches used to describe participation in citizen science are known as contributory, collaborative and co-created. In contributory projects, scientists take the lead in setting the research questions, designing the survey procedures and data-collection framework, and analysing and communicating the results. Participants submit data to follow these requirements. Collaborative projects are also designed by scientists, but participants have the opportunity to be involved in more than one stage. For example, contributing or analysing data, helping to define the research questions or communicating and disseminating results. Co-created projects may be developed by scientists and a community group working together to monitor a local nature reserve in response to an environmental issue, for example. The participants and other stakeholders are involved as closely as possible in defining goals, shaping approaches and collecting and analysing data.

The integration of new and emerging technologies in citizen science over recent years has expanded the possibilities for participation and scope for scientific research, facilitating wider data collection and expanding capacity for the management and collation of data. This often involves crowdsourcing, defined as the practice of executing a task or seeking the solution to a problem by inviting anyone to respond or participate (Silvertown et al., 2015). A proposed typology for crowdsourcing citizen science projects suggests that they can use a wide range of defining characteristics to engage and involve people.These include initiatives that are action-focused, with volunteers addressing local concerns; those with an emphasis on conservation activities; those with an emphasis on investigation methods that are conducted mainly online; and those focusing on educational goals. For example, [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] can be described as a platform that classifies wildlife data and also crowdsources the identification of a wide range of species (you will learn about this in more detail as the course progresses). While,, is a platform that hosts a variety of projects in different science disciplines as well as the social sciences and the arts that require volunteers to help with research tasks such as classifying images, etc.

Technology can also support citizen science through the use of sensors: volunteers can be asked to collect automated data on weather, air quality, noise pollution, etc. Smartphones have revolutionised this area, particularly in biodiversity-monitoring projects, providing participants with easy access to apps and other tools that facilitate instant data entry. This is then collected or collated with the simultaneous recording of GPS location information and easy uploading of photos for further verification. This helps to convert the public from being mere observers to becoming recorders of scientific data. See the example projects led by the Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) Research Group at University College London ( ‘Gamification’ is another useful approach, integrating a challenge-based environment to provide a fun element for participants when doing scientific tasks that may seem repetitive.

In reality, projects adapt a combination of approaches and, in doing so, they are able to achieve goals of participant recruitment, research, conservation and education – all at the same time. They also have other positive impacts such as developing understanding and knowledge, enhancing engagement or interest, improving skills, and changing attitudes and behaviour.

Activity 4 Approaches to citizen science

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Citizen science projects can be categorised based on the method used for participation – how it is developed and implemented. Now complete Table 3 by doing the following, based on the descriptions outlined above:

  1. Consider your own involvement and interest in citizen science. How would you describe the activities you have been involved in?
  2. If you have not yet participated as a citizen scientist, what are your interests and how would you like to be involved? Or, using the introductory video to Butterfly Conservation’s ‘big butterfly count’ in Section 3, or the Nature’s Calendar project example from Activity 3, think about the research behind it – the tasks, purpose and goal, or aim of the project.
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Table 3 Defining approaches to citizen science
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