Citizen science: the knowledge of many minds

2 Apr 2024

Counting birds was the beginning: Citizen science projects have surged in popularity. And at LMU, too, citizens are actively contributing to research.

© picture alliance/dpa

“Get out of the ivory tower” is an oft repeated refrain when it comes to citizen science. Science policies are strongly promoting civic participation, while research projects are increasingly inviting laypeople to take part. At LMU, observations of freshwater jellyfish and wild bees, contributions to an Alpine lexicon, monitoring of the effects of climate change, and annotation of artworks are just a few examples of participatory science. The idea behind citizen science is not only to generate new knowledge, but also to bring science out into society and strengthen the bonds of trust between science and civil society – an important task particularly in an era where mistrust of science and alternative facts abound.

And yet the participation of amateurs in scientific studies is not a new phenomenon: “Citizen science has a much longer history than is commonly assumed,” says Henrike Rau, Professor of Social Geography and Sustainability Research at the Department of Geography. As part of the citizen science project BAYSICS, the geographer investigated how people view climate protection measures. In the areas of biology and astronomy, for example, people without any formal training have been involved in the collection of data and observations for centuries – even Charles Darwin took part in the Beagle expedition strictly speaking as an amateur, as he actually studied at a theological institution. The first organized collaboration between citizens and scientists is generally considered to be the Christmas Bird Count by the Audubon Society in the United States. This event took place for the first time at Christmas 1900 and has been held annually ever since.

Different formats

“Citizen science largely originated in domains such as biology and ecology and involved the compiling of large datasets, for which you need a lot of collectors,” says Rau. Indeed, citizen science is still often deployed today to generate data on a scale that researchers alone cannot manage. Moreover, digitalization has opened up new opportunities for civic participation in a vast range of disciplines. Thanks to modern identification apps, for example, you no longer have to be a hardcore birdwatcher or botanical whizz to take part in many projects.

As yet, there is no standard international definition for citizen science. As the “Bürger schaffen Wissen” project on the development of citizen science, which was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, puts it in its Green Paper, Citizen Science Strategy 2020 for Germany: “While the Anglo-American approach to citizen science usually emphasizes public participation in data collection for environmental research, there is a broader understanding of the term in Germany. Citizen science encompasses the active participation by citizens in the various phases of the research process in the natural and social sciences and in the humanities.”

Accordingly, the term “citizen science” can cover many kinds of participation: from simply placing resources at the disposal of a project – say, the computing power of the family PC – to collecting data, all the way through to fully participative research, whereby citizen researchers are also involved in framing the questions and analyzing and interpreting the data.

Reaching different population groups

At the heart of the just-completed citizen science project BAYSICS, in which Henrike Rau was involved, was an interactive online portal, via which citizens could enter observations on the effects of climate change, among other things. For her own project, she “utilized all channels within the consortium” as well as other routes – such as contacting schools or giving lectures – so as to reach as diverse an audience as possible in her investigation of what people think about climate action measures and who should be responsible for them. In this way, she identified various so-called climate cultures, which span a broad range of opinions on climate change.

She sees it as a challenge for citizen science projects in general, however, that it is difficult to reach many different population groups. The groups that take part in citizen science project tend to be rather homogeneous; in the main, people who are already interested in science. By questioning people who logged on to the BAYSICS platform multiple times, the geographer knows that it was primarily more educated and media-savvy people who participated in the data collection. She is convinced nonetheless that there is broad interest in taking part in such projects in principle – but the formats have to be right for people. She mentions schools as an important potential channel for bringing projects to the general public.

What motivates citizen researchers?

Citizen Lab - Forschung für Alle, Alle für Forschung! (in German)

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For most people, the principal driving force behind wanting to participate in citizen science projects is high intrinsic motivation – that is to say, interest in the topic and the desire to make a contribution to science. An additional motivation can be fun. The LMU project ARTigo, for example, is designed as a game where users collect points for annotating artworks. Between 2010 and march 2024, some 50,000 players tagged over 66,000 pictures in this way.

Another incentive can be the opportunity to influence thematic priorities and help define research questions that may affect one’s own life. In the field of medical care research, Professor Eva Grill and PD Daniela Koller from the Institute for Medical Information Processing, Biometry, and Epidemiology (IBE) head up the Citizen Lab run by the Munich Network for Health Care Research. The lab is designed to facilitate the involvement of patient groups in the planning of studies, so that their perspectives can be taken into account from the beginning. “Oftentimes, the perspective of researchers overlaps with that of doctors and health care providers,” says Grill. “With citizen participation, we want to obtain a different viewpoint on the system and, for example, work with patients to identify which research questions have not yet been properly addressed.”

Citizen participation opens up new perspectives

Grill and her team will be engaged in various projects grouped under the general category of “mobility.” One focus, for instance, will be on the topic of vertigo. “Even though the lifetime prevalence is very high here, not to mention the degree of suffering, the care given to patients is inadequate,” says Grill. “It makes sense, therefore, to chat with patients and gain an external perspective on the health care system through their participation.” Other projects in which the researchers plan to collaborate with citizens concern long Covid and healthy aging in neighborhoods.

However, the Citizen Lab is still in its infancy. The researchers are currently building up contacts to secure the participation of citizens. A platform for doing this is the Citizen Lab website, while reaching out directly to organizations such as self-help groups also plays an important role. “Finding people who can contribute to the topics is laborious work,” emphasizes Grill. But events with fun elements like tests or challenges can help reach participants and generally go down well, in Grill’s experience. However, she notes that such events do not reach all sociodemographic groups equally.

The goal of citizen research is for people to develop a greater interest in science and acquire skills that will allow them to better understand scientific research. In return, this storming of the ivory tower should motivate researchers to explain their methods and results in layman’s terms. This generates trust between science and the general public, within citizen science projects and beyond – at least that’s the idea.

Trust from the researchers’ perspective

LMU social psychologist Dr. Marlene Altenmüller addresses the subject of trust in the joint project Trust in Citizen Science (TiCS), which has just got underway. She will be investigating which features of citizen science could create trust or present barriers to trust from the perspective of scientists. She conceives of citizen science as a fully participative co-creation of knowledge by researchers and citizens. “One of the foundations of trust, viewed psychologically, is relying on the expertise of others. Our theory is that the implication that everyone can do science might pose a threat to the societal role of scientists and can lead to the rejection of participative forms of science generation,” explains Altenmüller.

In her project, she wants to investigate whether such feelings of threat exists among researchers, and if so, how it might be dealt with positively. “At the moment, citizen science is being heavily promoted and spoken about in glowing terms. What makes our project unique, I think, is that we’re also trying to take a critical look at citizen science and possible obstacles that researchers themselves perceive.” One of the aspects that could influence trust in citizen science, according to Altenmüller, is the degree of citizen participation. After all, citizen science usually does not take the form of a fully participative project, rather citizen researchers are invited to take part in specific individual steps. The subjectively perceived or actual degree of participation could, in her view, influence how threatened scientists feel, in particular when the participation also touches on decision-making power in the research process.

“It could be that the potential of citizen science for building trust is somewhat overestimated at present,” says Altenmüller. “I don’t think that citizen science per se always increases trust on all sides. What’s important is how citizen science projects are designed. For example, in terms of expertise still having a role to play.” Other possible areas that can be addressed are communication and the division of duties. The more clearly it is communicated who is responsible for what, the more it becomes possible to establish trust. At the same time, this is also important to avoid citizens getting frustrated with projects.

Generally speaking, however, the idea of citizen science is a good one – this is something on which all the scientists agree. Ideally, citizen science can incorporate a variety of perspectives into research and generate interest and enthusiasm among the general population over the course of individual projects. For this to succeed, trust and clear communication are indispensable. This is not a one-way street, but requires a spirit of partnership between citizens and researchers – only then can citizen science develop its full potential and create a stable bridge joining science and the public.

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