Citizen science: Crowdsourcing Scientific Knowledge

Citizen Science






Nowadays you can pretty much crowdsource anything from statistical analysis (Kaggle) to Graphic Design (99Designs), whatever you want help with you can find it online. But science is probably not the first thing on peoples’ mind when they think of this phenomenon. Science has an image of being a restricted activity, that requires specific knowledge and skills. Scientists are smart people locked away in laboratories or universities. citizen-scienceWe believe science is our most reliable system of gaining new knowledge and should be reserved for special people who are trained for it. However, nothing is further from the truth according to citizen science (also called crowd science and/or amateur science). Citizen science projects can be very diverse and can serve both specific research questions and open-ended data collection (Lukyanenko, et al., 2016).


Citizen science has been met with some criticism, including issues with data quality and ethics.

Data Quality

Is citizen science reliable? crossed-fingersThis is, of course, a valid question and the corresponding answer could fill a blog post on its own. To give a short answer: yes, in most cases (Galloway et al., 2006). When scientists use citizen science in their research, they can take different actions to ensure data quality. For example, they could provide training/close supervision to the participants, of course keeping in mind the time/costs incurred with this.
Furthermore, scientists can cross-check for consistency with existing literature or with their own previous observations and last but not least the task that is asked to the public could be simplified to the point ‘little can go wrong’ (Riesch, et al., 2014). Actions that are appropriate to take of course depend on the characteristics of each research and ultimately need to be decided and justified by the researchers themselves.


An obvious problem in citizen science is the accreditation of research results. In some projects, the involvement of participants is high and requires a lot of time and/or effort making their contribution to the research quite substantial. Ownership of data should be clearly defined beforehand and considerations regarding accreditation should be handled in a fair manner and communicated explicitly before participation.


Citizen science of course also has significant benefits including increasing accessibility of science, changes in science literacy, providing a different perspective and the possibility to analyze larger datasets.


As mentioned before the term science and research can sound intimidating, especially for ‘outsiders’. Citizen science can help people ‘ease into’ the world of science in a manageable manner. It helps make research more inclusive (Lukyanenko, et al., 2016). This inclusiveness, in turn, can increase interest for science in general, change people’s views and can persuade more people to study and/or work in any field of science.

 Science Literacy

There is some debate about this but studies have shown that participating in citizen science can increase science literacy and familiarity with the scientific method (Cronje, Rohlinger, Crall & Newman, 2011).


Since most participants in citizen science lack academic scientific education, they can offer a new perspective on issues/research which can be useful to explore new options, help studies advance after problems have occurred and/or offer future research ideas (Lukyanenko, et al., 2016). By including a larger group of people, the group most likely also becomes more diverse and thus also more diverse in terms of knowledge (Raddick et al., 2013).

Larger datasets

By outsourcing some of the data analysis larger data sets can be included in studies. Of course computers also have the power to analyze large data sets, however, some tasks require capabilities that humans are more efficient in such as image and sound analysis (Fleming, 2001).

Examples of current applications of

citizen science

Bird research

Citizen science projects have made a serious contribution to scientific knowledge (Ceccaroni, 2016). For example, it has helped examine the distribution of bird populations (Cooper et al. 2007, Bonter and Harvey 2008, Bonter et al. 2009), the influence of environmental change on birds’ breeding behavior (Hames et al., 2002a) and the effect of acid rain on bird population (Hames et al. 2002b).

Scistarter is a website stimulating people to learn about, participate in and contribute to science. Their goal is to create a place in which there is an open communication between citizens and scientists. It is an online database of current citizen science projects and acts as a link between interested citizens and researchers in need of these citizens (“About Us”, 2017).


galaxy-zooGalaxy Zoo

This is possibly the most famous example of an online citizen science project. It is a crowdsourced astronomy project in which people can help classify galaxies. It launched on the 11th of July 2007 and collected more than 50 million during its first year. To date is has gone through 13 different ‘rounds’ each focusing on a different task/image set (“Story”, 2017). The data collected has been used in many studies and contributes greatly to a better understanding of the phenomenon (Raddick et al., 2013).


About Us. (2017). SciStarter. Retrieved 15 February 2017, from

Bonter DN, Harvey MG. 2008. Winter survey data reveal rangewide dedine in Evening Grosbeak populations.The Condor 110: 376–381. BioOne

Bonter DN, Zuckerberg B, Dickinson JL. 2009. Invasive birds in a novel landscape: Habitat associations and effects on established species. Ecography.doi:10.1111/j.1600-0587.2009.06017.x

Ceccaroni, L. (2016). Analyzing the role of citizen science in modern research (1st ed.). IGI Global.

Cooper CB, Dickinson J, Phillips TB, Bonney R. 2007. Citizen science as a tool for conservation in residential ecosystems. Ecology and Society 12: 11.

Cronje, R., Rohlinger, S., Crall, A., & Newman, G. (2011). Does Participation in Citizen Science Improve Scientific Literacy?. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 10(3), 135-145. doi:10.1080/1533015x.2011.603611

Estelles Arolas, E., Gonzalez Ladron de Guerra, F., 2012. Towards an integrated crowdsourcing definition, Journal of Information Science 38 (2), 189-200.

Fleming, L., 2001. Recombinant uncertainty in technological search. Management Science 47 (1), 117–132

Galloway, A. W. E., Tudor, M. T. and Haegen, W. M. V. (2006), The Reliability of Citizen Science: A Case Study of Oregon White Oak Stand Surveys. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 34: 1425–1429. doi:10.2193/0091-7648(2006)34[1425:TROCSA]2.0.CO;2

Hames RS, Rosenberg K, Lowe JD, Barker S, Dhondt AA. 2002a. Effects of forest fragmentation on tanager and thrush species in eastern and western North America. Pages 81–91 in George L, Dobkins DS, eds. The Effects of Habitat Fragmentation on Birds in Western Landscapes: Contrasts with Paradigms from the Eastern United States, vol. 25. Cooper Ornithological Society.

Hames RS, Rosenberg K, Lowe JD, Barker S, Dhondt AA. 2002b. Adverse effects of acid rain on the distribution of the wood thrush Hylocichla mustelina in North America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 99: 11235–11240. CrossRefPubMed

Lukyanenko, R., Parsons, J. and Wiersma, Y. F. (2016), Emerging problems of data quality in citizen science. Conservation Biology, 30: 447–449. doi:10.1111/cobi.12706

Riesch, H. and Potter, C., (2014) Citizen science as seen by scientists: Methodological, epistemological and ethical dimensions, Public Understanding of Science 23 (1) : 107-120Jordan

Jordan Raddick; G. Bracey; P. L. Gay; C. J. Lintott; C. Cardamone; P. Murray; K. Schawinski; A.S. Szalay; J. Vandenberg (2013). “Galaxy Zoo: Motivations of Citizen Scientists”.

Jordan Raddick; G. Bracey; P. L. Gay; C. J. Lintott; C. Cardamone; P. Murray; K. Schawinski; A.S. Szalay; J. Vandenberg (2013). “Galaxy Zoo: Motivations of Citizen Scientists”.

Serrano, F. (2013). Green Paper on Citizen Science. Citizen Science for Europe: Towards a better society of empowered citizens and enhanced research.

Story. (2017). Retrieved 15 February 2017, from



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