Skip to main content

Citizen Scientists: Collaborators to Be Recognized and Applauded

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Citizen scientists investigate artifacts at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center during a 2017 open house. | Chesapeake Bay Program/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Citizen scientists play a significant role in achieving scientific results, according to a panel of experts who participated in the January installment of the AAAS Colloquium series, noting successful citizen science programs and offering suggestions to maximize citizen scientists’ efforts.

“There are many, many different kinds of citizen science projects, everything from large-scale, global, data-drive, researcher-driven investigations to community-based, community-driven questions that address a critical problem, and citizen science exists in almost every scientific discipline,” said Jennifer Shirk, interim executive director of the Citizen Science Association, a nonprofit that seeks to support practitioners of citizen science. “It’s a broad and diverse field.”

While citizen science is “one of the important movements in science today,” its history stretches back many years, said Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. AAAS’ first president, William Redfield, was “a citizen scientist of the first rank,” the owner of a steamship company whose observations form the basis for the field of meteorology, Holt said.

Today, AAAS’ involvement in citizen science includes a partnership with the National Park Service on the Second Century Stewardship program, which has funded several research projects in Acadia National Park that involve citizen science in a variety of ways, said Bob Hirshon, program director of technology and learning at AAAS and moderator of the Colloquium. Other projects include the Active Explorer data collection app and the National Parks Science Challenge, which uses an augmented-reality game to involve young adults in citizen science in national parks, Hirshon added.

Citizen Sciece Colloquium January 2018
From left, Bob Hirshon, Sam Droege, Jennifer Shirk, Alison Cawood and Paula Wang participate in the January Colloquium on citizen science. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

Citizen involvement improves science, said Alison Cawood, citizen science coordinator at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Such volunteers have contributed, for instance, to projects at the center’s research facility on the Chesapeake Bay, delivering additional data and improving data-quality procedures.

Sam Droege, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said that monitoring programs, in particular, offer researchers irreplaceable data. For instance, weather reports collected by citizen scientists more than 100 years ago continue to be analyzed, he said. Today, the collection of similar data about wildlife and the environment is needed and citizen scientist programs offer a low-cost yet scientifically rigorous way to gather such information.

“We can’t collect today’s data tomorrow,” he said.

Droege cited several attributes of strong citizen scientist programs, including the “event-izing” of data collection and recording. By designating a particular day for such activities, citizen scientists feel part of a larger effort and are more likely make a commitment to participate, he said.

Matching the right volunteers with the right projects is another way to make the most of citizen science, Cawood said. After all, citizen scientists come from a range of backgrounds. While many researchers think of citizen science as a way to engage children and teenagers, many of citizen scientists are adults, some of whom bring scientific expertise from other fields, she said.

The scientific enterprise needs to recognize the research contributions and outcomes of citizen science, Shirk said. Too frequently, results are not shared and, if collected data is published, the findings may be inaccessible to participants or the authors may fail to acknowledge the citizen scientists’ work, she said.

Recognition of their contributions is a major motivator for participants, Shirk said. While some citizen science programs are modeled on the idea that volunteers are strictly there to learn from professionals, Shirk said citizen scientists also want to be part of a discovery and help gather data relevant to a problem that interests them in calling upon programs to embrace learning together.

Paula Wang, who has volunteered for more than 25 years with the Audubon Naturalist Society, noted that water-quality data collected by trained volunteers has been provided to county government agencies in Maryland, informing a decision to halt development in the watershed of Montgomery County’s cleanest stream, Wang said.

Said Shirk, “Members of the public take part in citizen science because they believe that their work makes a difference.”