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Interview with Muki Haklay - Introducing the ‘Characteristics of citizen science’ document

Helen Feord
April 30, 2020, 3:38 p.m.

Could you briefly introduce the topic of this document?

As a document, it is set as a foundation document for definitions of citizen science, so it is to set out the parameters around which people can set up their own definition, or their slice, of citizen science that is suitable for what they are doing. So on one side, it is important to recognise that people need to define what is and what is not citizen science, but at the same time, it is also trying to deal with the fact that it is a very wide field, with a lot of variation and subtleties. What is suitable in one context might not be suitable for another context. 

It’s squaring a circle, or circling a square. That’s actually what it’s trying to do. It is an attempt of doing this balance, of saying that the reason people need a definition is when they come to set up a platform like EU-Citizen.Science, or if they are a medical charity and they want to put out a call for a specific type of citizen science project that they want to promote, and then someone will come to them and say “what you are doing is not citizen science”. So you want to give them the parameters under which that kind of thing will happen, and they can call this thing ‘citizen science’, while at the same time not telling them they have to include everything else in their definition - because there are very big differences between a medical charity and an environmental charity, and they will need different citizen science. And these are wide characteristics; Originally, the project was called ‘Contours of citizen science’.

Why did you decide to change the name? 

Because it [was] too poetic, in a way. ‘Characteristics’ sounds more like a document. It is a policy document, after all. The academic paper will be called ‘Contours of citizen science’, probably.

What did you enjoy about the process of doing the survey and writing the document?

It has been an amazing collaboration between the 28 people who are listed on the explanation document. We’ve done that over a short period of time, it’s a highly uncertain process, trying to do it in a way that’s listening to everyone and accepting the different views and perspectives; it was a lot of work, but it was a really awesome collaboration. And the second thing is the fact that the creation of the survey (the vignette survey), and seeing it working, it’s a fantastic resource that will come side by side with the characteristics. I think that it will also help in understanding and teaching people about citizen science, so that was a really enjoyable part of it.

Will you use these resources again in other contexts?

Yes. I would like to see the vignettes used again. We created out of it 70 vignettes of different cases that are and aren’t citizen science, and I think that they could be helpful in talking with different actors in the field, and about the field. 

What was the demand for this project to start with?

The demand came from this need that is emerging, from funders and from practitioners, and from projects like EU-Citizen.Science, to have some set of criteria for citizen science, and the need for having some grounding on what is and what isn’t citizen science. Those requests came from different people at different times. From questions by the people in the European Commission about “should we fund this project? Is this a citizen science project? We go out with a call for citizen science, how do we know that what people are suggesting to us is citizen science?”, that kind of thing. And also from people within the field itself, saying “is what I am doing citizen science, should we be part of ECSA?”. Another demand was the emergence of different criteria which seemed to be, at least from my perspective, at risk of being too narrow.

Who was involved in the project?

The ‘Characteristics’ project was carried out by people who are involved in the EU-Citizen.Science project, and a lot of them are ECSA members: the ECSA working groups, the ECSA board and ECSA HQ people. So it was clearly an ECSA project, and we were saying it actually from the start, that it is a European project, with a focus on the European interpretation of citizen science, because we expect that it will serve the European Commission and governments.

And so that would be different for other citizen science organisations on other continents?  

Other organisations might come out with something else. Although we have a lot of responses from the US and from other places, we didn’t actually try to extract the results and try to analyse them differently, because we will open all the vignettes and the instrument that we used, and we can use it and replicate it. So what we tried to do - and that is an important aspect of it, the vignettes - what is was trying to say is not that a group of experts are deciding for everyone else what the characteristics are; instead, we wanted to create a set of parameters which are going to go out, and so we asked people: “Do you think that this is citizen science, or is it not?”. 

And then we got the 330 responses, and throughout the writing up of the characteristics, we were very careful all the time to say: “Does this respond to what people told us in the survey?”. So we are actually representing views in the survey. 

I can give one obvious example where I can see that if it was the expert, we would not come to the same conclusion as what came out from this survey. It’s basically using social media and emails and other routes for people in science communication and citizen science, or people who are in the know. And that is what I guess the 330 people that responded to us thought; only 25% of them were saying that they have not been involved in citizen science for less than a year. So, you have a lot of people with more than one year of experience. And those people are saying “Yes, this case, I think that I would include it”, or “In this case, I won’t include it”. 

And then, out of all of that, we are coming out with conclusions. And that can create tensions, and the case which is the most obvious is this issue of commercial involvement in citizen science, which is an issue that needs further research and work by the different associations and policy-making bodies. But it is an issue that came up. 

So in a way this project is flagging the issue up? 

Exactly. The community as a whole, if we take us also, the 28 plus the 330 (although there is an overlap), it is a big chunk of people who are involved in this field saying, this is our view and we think this is an issue that needs attention. 

What do you hope the impact of this document will be, on the citizen science community and on other research communities?

My hope is that it actually will highlight the plurality, that it is all about plurality in citizen science, and that people will notice that they can have their own version of it, and it’s legitimate, but they should also notice that other people will be somewhere else in the landscape and that there is not a single citizen science, there are many citizen sciences and that they differ: by academic field, by methodologies, by all sorts of reasons. And those are good reasons to have those differences, but also to accept that you can’t just go around and say that “This is citizen science” and that is it.

Do you have anything else that you would like to highlight to do with the document?

Yes, that it is there to help the different countries that we see now: the emergence of national networks of citizen science in Italy, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, the UK. I think we want to see that this document will be helpful for people for that. And we also hope that it will become a useful tool for funders and for funding programmes that will promote citizen science activities.

I think it will have a helpful impact in the same way as the ECSA ten principles did. That is actually another point: that it is not there to replace the ten principles of citizen science, it is there to complement them and work together. It will enhance that and emphasise the contribution of ECSA as a practice organisation that highlights and provides different things that will be useful for the community.

And the document itself will become a paper in the future?

There are the characteristics themselves which are coming out, and there is also the result of this survey and the material that came from the survey, which we want to release. So we hope that in the coming months, we will write it up. Under lockdown it is more challenging, but it will be possible, hopefully, to progress with it and we hope that very soon there will also be an academic paper that explains the methodology and the results. 

And then, also importantly, in this paper we will release all the material that came out of the survey, so that other researchers can use it. There is lots of interesting analysis that people can do with this and we have just started scratching the surface with it.

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