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Characteristics of Citizen Science: Q&A

Francisco Sanz
June 11, 2020, 11:38 a.m.

On 27 May 2020, ECSA and EU-Citizen.Science co-hosted a webinar about the new ‘Characteristics of citizen science’ document. (Re)watch the webinar or get access to the video material). The webinar was sold out, and there was not time to respond to all the questions asked by the audience. In this blog post, the four panellists respond to the questions unanswered on the day.

The responses are indicated as follows: Maike Weißpflug (MW), Colombe Warin (CW), Muki Haklay (MH) and Susanne Hecker (SH).

Q1. Is it correct that the study was ‘only’ conducted in English? Do you think that had a limiting effect on the diversity of study participants? - Julia Lorke

MH: Indeed, the study was conducted in English due to its aim to reach across the scientific community, which uses English extensively. It was not possible to translate the study within the time frame (from September to December 2019, so we had the results of the analysis by January 2020). 

However, it will be fantastic for similar studies to use the material, translate it and use it to see views within specific sub-communities. I would guess that we would have found differences within, say, the German-speaking science communication community, compared to the French one. We would also have more representation from people who work a lot locally, which I think we’re missing.

Julia’s response: Thank you! I think I wasn't aware of the time pressure you were under. Definitely interested to support if you want to expand the study to other languages.

Q2. I would be interested in hearing a bit about the reasoning participants shared for their decision on the vignettes. Can you already share some insights from that analysis? Can these maybe help us to understand why there is no consensus, and why people have such different perspectives on the vignettes / factors? - Julia Lorke

MH: In the material that came from the survey, there is a wealth of comments and it is very interesting to see the reasons that people gave. They expose the challenges of decisions and their opinions. This information will be shared in a paper about the study, and then all data will become open and shared, so anyone can use it. Indeed, the qualitative information helps to understand the diversity of views and the reasons for selecting a value for a vignette 

Q3. @Susanne, in your talk you described the result of this initiative as a “set of characteristics” of citizen science, which I think is a very accurate term. Would I be correct in seeing this as different from a 'definition' of citizen science? Perhaps a finding of this project is that trying to come up with a universal definition of citizen science would be infeasible (or even unwanted). - Wessel Ganzevoort

SH: Indeed, the characteristics do not even aim at defining the field of citizen science. Actually, the study’s starting point was that there is not and cannot be a universal definition of citizen science that suits everyone and fits every purpose. There might be the need to have a definition when implementing a funding scheme or establishing quality criteria in the operationalisation of e.g. citizen science platforms. Yet, this does not mean that citizen science is an arbitrary term. Our aim was to discuss those areas where the boundaries of the field get fuzzy. The process of rating the vignettes can be seen as a process of raising awareness about people’s opinions and standpoints. This is something that we see has happened in some respondent’s responses. We will discuss this on a broader level in the publication.

MH: The document and the characteristics are explicitly stating that they are a very pluralistic ‘definition’ - or, more accurately, written in order for other people to write their definitions on the basis of it. The project started with the goal of not providing a universal definition (which is why the explanation document cites both Heigl et al. 2019 and Auerbach et al. 2019). We are accepting that for a specific purpose, people will need a definition and criteria, but we want to communicate that the totality of what can be counted as citizen science is very wide.  

Q4. @Muki what are your views regarding projects that require the participant to raise a certain amount of sponsorship to take part? - Liz Dowthwaite

MH: In the characteristics, we recognise that such a thing is relevant, and can involve costs of equipment or supporting the project. What was very clear is that pure financial sponsorship - so without doing anything else in the project - is not a citizen science activity. Although personally, I do see people who contribute money to citizen science as part of the community - since they are providing a resource, and I don’t want to differentiate between money and computing - the [characteristics] document is following the surve, and it was the clearest “not citizen science”. 

Q5. Do colleagues think that the different future we are about to move into will shift some of the processes, methodologies and decision-making in citizen science towards the citizen and the volunteers? - Rick Hall

MH: This is a very interesting point from the survey. While from my point of view this is an obvious way for citizen science to progress, there are many people who don’t see it this way. In both the survey and the consultation, we’ve seen clear views that science is something that is done by experts, and they need to be involved in setting the process and providing quality assurance for the project to be a proper scientific project. This is why the characteristics are using explicit phrases to clarify that community- and individual-led projects and bottom-up projects are a legitimate form of citizen science. 

SH: During the Covid-19 crisis, people tend to trust more in science, as results of surveys in Germany, Italy and South Africa (for example) show. At the same time, we can see some media ‘heroes’ in different countries who are renowned scientists in their fields. Policy and society are listening to them and their advice is taken seriously. It seems there is a window of opportunity to involve more people in the research process to create a better mutual understanding and exchange of knowledge.

Q6. I would be interested to know whether there are significant national differences in this assessment in Europe. - Anonymous 

Q7. Did you identify any differences/similarities from a cross-country or cross-region trends perspective? - Kathy Kikis Papadakis

MH: We can’t tell because we didn’t check. The results will be open and that will be a very interesting analysis. However, I think that, as with Q1, it will be valuable to go through the effort of translating the vignettes and getting the response from the main languages in Europe - say, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, German, French, Italian and Polish - to get local views and understand the variations. 

Q8. What was the most surprising aspect, i.e. what contradicted common expectations and what are the resulting actions? - Aletta Bonn

MH: For me, the most surprising aspect was the plurality of views. I expected the cases to fall into a clear cluster of citizen science/not citizen science, with few things in the middle which are ambiguous. The study showed that most cases are ambiguous and that the number of clear cut cases is very small. This was actually encouraging in terms of the need for a range of characteristics that can express this range of options and views. 

There are some views that you might call ‘common expectation’, for example a case that was explicitly using one of the famous examples of Zooniverse was judged not to be citizen science, or the use of a digital tool in what is explicitly a clinical trial, which frequently is noted as not citizen science, was recognised as such. The most striking result, however, for me, was the animosity towards commercial projects. 

SH: From a first qualitative analysis, I found it very interesting to see that sometimes, the very same argument is used by respondents to either rate it as totally not citizen science, as well as 100% citizen science. 

Q9. I'm here today to learn about the differences and common ground of citizen science and science education (outside of schools). If I focus on children and young adults (inspire them for STEM), would you say it's a kind citizen science? - Frank Huebner

MH: That was indeed a factor that we have discussed, and there is a specific paragraph in the document that helps to explain the difference between projects that are only about education and without a contribution to scientific projects, and those that are. The difference there is subtle, and it is about intention and framing. So these types of activities are absolutely part of citizen science, but it is the details of what happens that will make a difference. 

Q10. Are there efforts to replicate the survey and possibly extend it to a representative sample to provide evidence-based comparison between countries? - Anonymous 

MH: See Q1. So far, we can’t do that, but as there is an interest in it, maybe that should be the next stage! 

Q11. Did you obtain data that can give an idea about who replied to the survey? - Cristina Luis

MH: We ensured that all data is anonymous, but we do know if people have experience in citizen science, which area of research they define themselves, and which country they are from, and which organisation they are working at. We haven’t analysed all of it at this stage, but we know enough to be quite confident that these 330 responses are covering a wide range of views.  

SH: I would add that respondents also had a policy background, and we even had some citizen scientists responding.

Q12. Are the questions and vignettes already publicly and openly available? And if not, could you share them already now for dissemination, translation and reuse? - Alessandro Sarretta

MH: The vignette and data will be open once we get the paper accepted for publication. However, if someone wants early access under the agreement of embargo on analysis, and with the aim of translation or other goals, do get in touch with me at 

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