Citizen science – exploitation or engagement

I was in Brussels yesterday at the final meeting of the PERARES project – Public Engagement with Research and Researcher Engagement with Society, a European project that explored how to develop more effective mechanisms for citizen engagement.

An interesting discussion arose about the nature of Citizen Science and whether current practices around Citizen Science are exploitation or engagement. Let me explain.

The PERARES project was formulated around the idea that citizen involvement with research should cover all aspects of the research cycle, from formulating ideas for research questions; developing the research methodology; conducting the research; sharing the results; and making a difference. This is co-production at its best – and clearly is an important part of the engaged research landscape. It challenges notions of research on society, and replaces it with research with society.

The current plethora of citizen science projects, brought about by the increase of digital technology, tend to be more narrowly defined, with citizens participating as data collectors or data analysers. This can be seen in the wonderful examples of Zooniverse, Conker tree science and iSpot. So the question is, are these citizen science projects a good thing?

My view is that these are excellent engagement opportunities – offering members of the public an really interesting opportunity to engage with research – and contribute something of value. When framed correctly, these are good opportunities for people to find out more about the research process. Clearly there are some things that need to be done to ensure that the experience is effective for participants including – a clear understanding of what they are being asked to do and why; an easy way to participate; an opportunity to see the results of the project and how their contribution made a difference and clearly the whole process needs to be transparent! However, when these factors are implemented there are benefits all round – an increasingly research literate public who have been actively engaged in something that has value; more data for the scientists; and a better outcome for the research.

Now I also think that citizen science can be done differently, with participants more involved in setting research questions, however I am not convinced that every engagement opportunity should do this. The participants in Conker Tree Science were motivated by the opportunity to do some real science in the classroom, and to contribute their data to real research. When offered the opportunity to frame their own question, participants chose an area of research that did not then ignite the public imagination, and led to rather less engagement than had been hoped.

I wonder what other people think? Is citizen science a good thing? What are the quality indicators of good practice? To what extent should all citizen involvement cover the full research cycle? Let me know what you think?