Citizen Science Wednesday: What is Citizen Science?

Monarch butterflies on a flower

Monarch butterflies are the subject of several citizen science projects. Source: David Wagner, http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=14347

I’ve been immersed in citizen science for the past year. When I talk about what I’ve been doing, I have a tendency to assume that everyone else has been as well.

That’s not remotely true; most people, in fact, don’t have any idea what citizen science is. As a result, “What is citizen science?” is the most common question that I’ve been asked.

My basic definition is “Organized scientific research that welcomes observations or analysis from the general public.” But in discussions, I find it easier to start with an example. So here’s the reasonably quick answer that I’ve developed:

Imagine that you’re a scientist and you’re studying animal migrations. Obviously, you can’t be everywhere that a specific animal is migrating. But it’s not generally real difficult information to collect. So these scientists have opened their research up to contributions from anyone who’s interested.

At this point, many people will respond with some variation of “I didn’t realize there were so many scientists studying animal migrations.” Whether they do or not, the next bit of my spiel covers the same area: I explain that citizen science is, in fact, broader than that illustration, and includes research in a lot of topics that invite the general public to contribute either observations or analysis. In fact, a lot of the book is given over to simply describing some of the projects that are available that people can get involved in.

The variety is bigger than topic, though. Some citizen science projects are worldwide, while others are restricted to specific localities; some require extensive training, while others require minimal outside knowledge; and some are time-consuming while others require only a few minutes. The book—and this site—will help provide a road map to these projects for anyone interested.

A note about definitions: My definition isn’t the only one. Some people might include any scientific research that’s done by non-professionals or science-related activities that don’t involve some sort of research aspect. I wouldn’t, but that’s not a value judgment—just how I break things down.

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