Putting the ‘citizen’ in ‘citizen science’

I was slightly surprised to see my twitter feed this morning filling up with comments about how the term ‘citizen’ appears in writing about science, and about public engagement with science. This seems to be coming from Roland Jackson’s post in response to the publication of a report called ‘What publics? When?’ from Sciencewise, an organisation that gives advice on science policy to government. Roland’s point is that perhaps the reason we get ourselves in a tangle when talking about public engagement is the word ‘public’, thinking that ‘citizen’ does a better job of breaking down the divide between ‘us’ doing the engagement and the ‘public’ being engaged. (There’s another engaging comparison on Nottingham’s ‘Making Science Public’ blog.)

In such contexts, I reckon ‘citizen’ comes up most often in ‘citizen science’, and I thought it might be interesting to say something about our use of the term. It’s how we describe our projects in papers, and we chose it mostly because we didn’t like the term ‘crowdsourcing’, which never seem adequate for projects which very quickly demonstrated that they could grow way beyond simple requests for a community to complete a task. We quickly realised we wanted people to make discoveries, to follow them up themselves and to chase down their own research questions and crowdsourcing just doesn’t describe that. I also liked the fact that anyone – professional or amateur, project designer or participant – could be a citizen scientist.

We clearly weren’t that confident, though. Although the core collaboration that builds and runs the Zooniverse is the Citizen Science Alliance, we’ve mostly reserved that term for grant applications rather than using in the real word. (Let along the problems of being a citizen science group which produces humanities projects either deliberately or accidentally.) This reticence isn’t misplaced; it reflects my firm belief that noone in the history of the world has ever set down at a computer, opened their web browser and thought ‘I’m a citizen scientist. Let’s do some citizen science’. Zooniverse participants are fans of one or more of our projects, and they tend to have stumbled in and then found a comfortable environment where they can do exciting things, rather than started off by looking for a science project. (This is also, I think, reflected in the lack of traffic we get from citizen science portals like SciStarter.)

‘Citizen’ science, from this perspective isn’t any more inclusive than talking about ‘public engagement’. The most common alternative (‘PPSR’ or Public Participation in Scientific Research) doesn’t help either. If names are important, we need a new one for this thing that we’re doing, but as the person who has been most consistently wrong about naming Zooniverse projects (I voted against Galaxy Zoo, for starters!) I’m the last person to ask. Maybe we should crowdsource a solution….


PS I’m reminded of this slide deck from Arfon which proposes CBSR (Community Based Scientific Research) and PPFCSM (Public Participation as a Fundamental Component of the Scientific Method), although I think he’s kidding on the last one.


6 thoughts on “Putting the ‘citizen’ in ‘citizen science’”

  1. Brigitte Nerlich’s blog post makes the case for ‘citizen’ pretty open and shut, I think. This word is far more often associated with the kinds of things we – as citizen scientists – want than is ‘public’; it’s an active, outgoing, involved word, in marked contrast to ‘public’ (pace John Keegan).

    Ironically, one word that frequently comes to mind when you hear ‘public’ seems to be somewhat missing in the Zooniverse, ‘open’. For example, the Citizen Science Alliance is very private (an opposite of public), and some of the key Zooniverse publications are available to the citizen scientists whose clicks created it only by payment of $$ (which money goes to a for-profit company, not for open/public purposes), e.g.
    Galaxy Zoo 1 : Data Release of Morphological Classifications for nearly 900,000 galaxies

  2. Hi Jean

    Thanks for the comment; I’m not sure what you mean about Zooniverse publications thought, as they all should be available for free, to everyone, via the arxiv. The paper you mention is linked here, for example.


    1. Why must PH zooites *pay* to access the papers that depend on their clicks? (Planet Hunters Talk), Why must zooites who created the GZ data *pay* to access the key paper on it? (Galaxy Zoo Talk), and Why must zooites who created the GZ data *pay* to access the key paper on it? (Galaxy Zoo forum)
      are threads/discussions in three Zooniverse project fora that I started, to get discussion going on this topic.

      Perhaps the most eye-opening thing, for me, was the In The Dark blog post Desperate Publishers. This blog is by UK cosmologist Peter Coles, and from it (and my own research) I have learned that the accessibility of scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals is a hot topic in academia. A very hot topic. Of course, in my past life as a Universe Today staff writer, I was not completely unaware of this, but I had not looked into it in any depth.

      Anyway, my summary of the 50 SPACE Zooniverse “Published Papers” shows that 17 are available in electronic form, as they appear in the relevant journals. A freely available version of another 22 or so likely match quite closely what has been published, though the actual published papers are behind a ‘paywall’. Four were not, in fact, published at the time I did my research, and for three more it’s not clear how the freely available preprint version differs from that which was actually published.

      However, two Zooniverse Published Papers are NOT available to ordinary zooites, not even as a preprint, unless they are willing to pay!

      For those who haven’t already seen it, this post by zookeeperChris, in the PH Talk thread is both recent and very pertinent.

      1. Which two papers are not accessible to Zooites? We should at least fix that straight away.

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