Citizen Science as democratization of science?

Dick Kasperowski about different types of Citizen Science, democratization of science and success criteria of Citizen Science projects

Citizen Science is often described as a mobilization of citizens to participate in scientific research. Known examples are Galaxy Zoo, in which laymen classify millions of galaxies, or eBird, a database collecting information on bird populations. Citizen science researcher Dick Kasperowski from Gothenburg University talks in a telepolis interview about different types of Citizen Science, democratization of science and success criteria of Citizen Science projects (German version: Citizen Science als Demokratisierung der Wissenschaft?).

Dear Mr. Kasperowski, you are said be the one of a few scientists doing research on Citizen Science. Why is the interest in learning more about Citizen Science so low?

Dick Kasperowski: Me and my research team are certainly not the only ones researching the phenomena of citizen science. There is a growing interest in multidisciplinary meta-studies of citizen science, particularly in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) asking questions of what and who makes scientific knowledge possible when non-scientists are involved and where and how in the research process the non-scientist can be involved. Several studies of this kind have also been produced by scientists creating citizen science projects. In Sweden, however we are among few who do this type of studies enabled by a generous grant from the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation (MMW2013.0020)

To help Telepolis-readers that are not so familiar with that topic: How would define Citizen Science?

Dick Kasperowski: Citizen science is at least three things 1) Citizen Science as a research method, aiming for scientific output, 2) Citizen Science as public engagement, aiming to establish legitimacy for science and science policy in society, and, 3) Citizen Science as civic mobilization, aiming for legal or political influence in relation to specific issues.

In the first form form of citizen science, volunteers are invited and relied upon for particular tasks. Data collection (typically in the form of observation) and analysis (in the form of classification), have been a costly and often time-consuming task for research in fields such as for example ornithology, ecology or astronomy. Today the access to data is no longer such a prominent concern per se due to technical developments, and somepart of the scientific work can sometimes be automated.

Typically volunteers are deployed to solve problems that cannot be automated, for example recognizing patterns in large datasets, conducting extensive fieldwork outdoors or providing a low-cost but high-quality input to a particular element in the research process. An important concern and issue to address is of course data quality.

Relying on contributions of volunteers, who have not undergone years of scientific training, has been a cause for lengthy discussion. Reliable contributions can, however, be made in specific types of projects with developed protocols that delimit participation to a set of well-defined tasks. Data quality can be both attained and controlled, particularly in citizen science projects that are conducted in digital environments. When people are called upon to solve some task, scientists carefully design standardised protocols in order to ensure that the volunteers involved in their projects pursue their task precisely in response to the needs of the scientists. One example is the use of protocols developed for observations, which make use of the inherent ability of human perception to recognise patterns or movement in a large data set.

The second form of citizen science is concerned with engaging the public as stakeholders in policy issues. This has been a longstanding concern, not only in terms of recruiting future generations to take an interest in and learn about science and research, but also to raise public awareness of scientific matters of concern to society. Since scientific activities might be associated with risks and hazards of consequence to society, this kind of initiative aims for a citizen that can act as a representative stakeholder of relevant interests at the intersection of science and society.

Hence, there are issues where public engagement is considered an important concern, for instance, environmental problems and risks emerging from for example the proliferation of genetically modified organisms (GMO), or the management of nuclear waste or fishery quotas, where scientific results may be contradictory and/or should be publicly deliberated for other reasons.

The third form of citizen science is first and foremost targeted to specific issues of concern. This form of citizen science is initiated by citizens themselves, who are triggered by a matter of concern for their community. The problems addressed accordingly originate outside of academic or other research institutions and, consequently, outside their main funding structures. The problems often relate to environmental issues of pollution, health hazards, species conservation, water and air quality or draining of natural resources. Typically scientific knowledge production per se is not aimed for, even though there are exceptions (i.e. scientific publications).

The main objective instead consists of mobilizing the community in collecting data in order to provide evidence to launch legal processes or influence political decision-making. Even though these initiatives emerge from outside of the institutions of science, they heavily rely on scientific standards - and in many cases scientific laboratories - for validating data. The funding for these projects can be structured through NGOs or crowdfunding campaigns; sometimes in combination with funding for innovation of new science practices.

"The concept of the scientist was not established until the 1850s before that people were amateurs"

How would you describe the relation between Crowdfunding and Citizen Science?

Dick Kasperowski: Crowdfunding has nothing to do with science per se, but it can be used to get funding for scientific projects. However crowdfunding does not automatically imply that those putting up the money also are involved in the research. They can be (see above) but not automatically. Crowdfunding is about asking for money to do the research, citizen science is about asking people to help without pay with some scientific task.

So would you consider laymen exploring the local history of their town Citizen Scientists too?

Dick Kasperowski: Good question! Maybe not, since citizen science is mostly concerned with the natural sciences, not with the humanities or Geisteswissenschaften, but there are also projects that call themselves Citizen Humanities. Maybe these laymen exploring local history could be called that. But it also is about their ambitions, are they aiming for peer-reviewed publications that might be difficult.

Is Citizen Science a really new phenomenon or are there historical predecessors for Citizen Science?

Dick Kasperowski: Scientific work has always relied on several actors, technologies and different forms of cooperation. Volunteer contribution to scientific fields such as for instance astronomy, has a documented long history, as has ornithology, at least since the latter parts of the 1800s. The concept of the scientist was not established until the 1850s before that people were amateurs. The engagement of volunteers as part of the scientific research process (citizen science as a method), has evolved into its current shape during the post-world war II period. In terms of scientific output, the traces are possible to follow back to the mid-1960s, notably with the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

Is there a specific Citizen Science discourse going on?

Dick Kasperowski: Yes, and this is a complex issue which has to do with mixing up the three different forms of citizen science. The second form of citizen science is concerned with engaging the public as stakeholders in policy issues. This form of citizen science has its main potential value as a provider of legitimacy and trust in science policy. Social scientific research on this form has shown that legitimate decision-making presupposes overcoming the gap between lay- and expert knowledge to achieve a deliberative and democratic process. However, research has also identified several obstacles, mainly in recognizing the problem of integrating local needs and knowledge with general policies and scientific knowledge. Social science on this form of citizen science has been very influential on a policy level, promoting discussions on the possibilities of democratisation of science.

This form is, however, often confused or mistaken for the above-mentioned form, citizen science as a method. This has led to widely promoted expectations on citizen science, where citizen science as a research method has been amalgamated with citizen science as public engagement. If such interactions are possible is not supported by current research and most projects have clearly separated these two goals in practice. The argument that citizen science contributes to the democratisation of science, as frequently voiced on a policy level, must thus be qualified rather than being taken for granted.

Is Citizen Science a sort of democratic science? Or are citizen scientists mostly considered cheap assistants?

Dick Kasperowski: Citizen science is currently including many people in scientific tasks, but citizens are only invited to do certain defined tasks like classifying or collecting data. You are not involved in all stages of the research process, even though that might be an ideal or rhetoric put forward. Citizens do very seldom formulate hypotheses or theories, for instance. No one is forced to take part in citizen science, but it has been criticised as a way of getting labour for free. I wonder what Marx would have said about it...

What is the motivation of Citizen Scientists? Why do people participate in Citizen Science projects?

Dick Kasperowski: That depends on what form of citizen Science we are talking about. It can be to contribute to science, have a high score on a gamified citizen science project, wanting to influence policy or being very concerned about changing the environment to the better.

Is gamification also an element of Citizen Science projects? And if it is: How does it affect Citizen Science?

Dick Kasperowski: Yes, it is. Several projects use games in citizen science. The question is difficult to answer; we are at the moment completing a study of this aspect. For some, gamification corrupts science, when the game takes over. Contributors become mainly concerned about high scores and data can be skewed. Others are of the opinion that gamification offers a strong motivating factor. A difficult question.

"Since 2009 there has been steady growth of projects and scientific publications coming out of Citizen Science projects"

Is Citizen Science something that is found in all scientific disciplines? Or is it more suitable for some disciplines than for others?

Dick Kasperowski: We have performed a large metastudy to try to answer that question; it is open access so all can read it. We found that that there are three main focal points of Citizen Science. The largest is composed of research on biology, conservation and ecology, and utilizes Citizen Science mainly as a methodology of collecting and classifying data.

A second strand of research has emerged through geographic information research, where citizens participate in the collection of geographic data. Thirdly, there is a line of research relating to the social sciences and epidemiology, which studies and facilitates public participation in relation to environmental issues and health. The social sciences, medicine and the humanities are still areas where Citizen Science is not utilized to any larger extent, in comparison with the natural sciences and geography.

Does your research indicate an increase in Citizen Science projects?

Dick Kasperowski: Yes, definitely since 2009 there has been steady growth of projects and scientific publications coming out of Citizen Science projects.

Are citizens initiating projects themselves or do they overwhelmingly become active after projects are launched by professional scientists?

Dick Kasperowski: Interesting question! We have no data on that, but projects are certainly initiated by citizens themselves.

Do professional scientists mention Citizen Scientists as contributors to their research results if they publish articles in scientific journals?

Dick Kasperowski: Yes, increasingly so. Historically, however, this has not always been the case. One reason for this could be that the involvement of non-scientists could be regarded as affecting data quality.

Do your results indicate that there are learning effects among the Citizen Scientists?

Dick Kasperowski: Yes, we have made studies of this and it is difficult to avoid learning, but sometimes it takes ways that the scientists asking for help did not intend. Volunteer contributors might learn to identify aspects of the pictures they are asked to classify that the scientists are not interested in. There might be a connection that learning can be contra-productive to what scientists are asking citizens to do. But this certainly must differ between projects.

Many citizen science-projects have a low cognitive threshold to make it possible for as many as possible to help scientists. You should not have to learn a lot to be able to participate, but there are projects where you really have to be very skilled. These projects do, however, not mobilize large masses of people as volunteer helpers.

Could you give us some examples for successful and unsuccessful citizen science projects?

Dick Kasperowski: That depends on what you mean by success: large scientific output, e.g. as scientific publications, social change, mass mobilization or some other aspect. When it comes to social change I think Louisiana Bucket Brigades is a good example. When it comes to scientific output and mass mobilization of volunteers, Galaxy Zoo and eBird and regarding scientific output, Foldit.

Which are the success criteria for citizen science projects?

Dick Kasperowski: Low cognitive threshold (but not always), being able to piggy back on already strong values of a community, for instance as in ornithology. Good participatory protocol that produce valid data if you are talking about the first form of citizen science. Possibilities of creating social change if you talk about the third form, here the quality of data would also be very important.

Dear Mr. Kasperowski, thanks a lot for the interview. (Ulrich Herb)