What is Citizen Science?

Citizen science can be described as active public involvement in scientific research. Recently, it has been growing more extensive, with a broader network. Some of the common activities of citizen science are monitoring pollution, procuring millions of images of flora and fauna, photographing stagnant water to assist in the documentation of the areas at a higher risk of mosquito-borne diseases, etc. This article discusses various aspects and activities of citizen science.

Citizen Science

Image Credit: OpturaDesign/Shutterstock.com

Although citizen science is a relatively new term, it has been in function and contributing to scientific research for many years. Researchers have traced its existence to 1800. A member of the American Ornithologists' Union, Wells Cooke formed arguably the first formal citizen-science program in the country. His programs were focused on studying the patterns of birds' migration.

During this program, a network of volunteers collected various information about migratory bird patterns and recorded the information on cards. These cards are currently being scanned and recorded in a public database for historical research.

A Brief Overview of Citizen Science 

Many times, procurement of government survey reports could be an extensively time-consuming process. Citizen science has been associated with public participation via sharing and contributing data related to scientific research. These volunteers are typically unpaid for their service. A successful citizen science program depends on thorough monitoring to maintain the focus of the project and the hard work of the volunteers.  

The thirst for knowledge increased the desire for connectedness with research and new findings. The need to improve the transparency and accessibility of science has substantially enhanced citizen science programs. Technological advancements, such as low-cost sensors, have helped volunteers gather enormous amounts of data that benefit the scientific community. Government institutions and international organizations have become more involved in forming, sponsoring, and participating in citizen science activities.

Citizen science programs are subscribed to by volunteers belonging to different age groups, i.e., from children to the elderly and from varied academic and professional backgrounds. Collaboration occurs when citizen science volunteers (public) work closely with scientists and researchers. Community-based groups may share their ideas with researchers to gather their insights. Some of the citizen science programs are also conducted or coordinated by scientists. Amateur scientists, educators, students, and volunteers may develop a network and discuss new ideas to advance various aspects of scientific knowledge.

Scientists often greatly benefit from these programs because they obtain enormous amounts of widely spread data without using their precious research funds. Scientists collaborate with community groups, such as birders, to increase their database and perform scientific studies. Recent advances in technology have made citizen science more reachable.

Organizations and Citizen Science Programs

One of the oldest organizers of citizen science is the National Audubon Society, which sponsors the Christmas Bird Count. The National Audubon Society has been organizing the bird count each winter since 1900. In this program, a group of volunteers, led by an experienced birder, focuses on gathering information on the local bird population. More than 2000 such groups operate across the United States and Canada. The data provided by these groups help formulate wildlife census.

The Scottish and the United Kingdom environmental protection agencies have incorporated citizen science in their routine work. The United Nations Environment Programme has been exploring how citizen science can be used to monitor the environment and assess environmental hazards.

Recently, multiple citizen-science organizations have come together to form the Citizen Science Global Partnership. They assessed how citizen science could help monitor the progress of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, which has focussed on reducing various environmental challenges by 2030. 

Bird Count

Image Credit: Skamai/Shutterstock.com

Contributions of Citizen Science 

Citizen science has immensely contributed to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the world's largest repository of this kind. According to a report, this repository has provided data for more than 2,500 peer-reviewed papers in the past ten years. Citizen science programs provide important environment-based data rapidly. For instance, the citizen science program, organized by the National Audubon Society, provides data on acid rain.

In this context, volunteers are recruited to collect rain samples, analyze their acidity levels and report the results to Audubon headquarters. These data are released as a monthly national map on acid rain. Such information has been helpful for both researchers as well as policymakers.

iNaturalist is a social network where anyone can submit images of flora and fauna they encounter. Scott Loarie, co-director of iNaturalist, stated that the number of images obtained each year has doubled since the start of the program in 2008. He said that more than 150 research papers have used iNaturalist data.

Another important contribution of citizen science was observed during Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. A small group of volunteers measured the radiation levels themselves, and many a time, their analysis contradicted the reports of local and central governments. This group helped highlight the inaccuracy in the government readings that had claimed a risk zone (with high radiation level) to be safe. This group is now called Safecast. However, there still exists skepticism about citizen-generated data.

In collaboration with the National Park Service, the National Geographic Society has sponsored several bioblitzes, which focus on determining most of the species found in a specific geographical region over a short period of time. Bioblitz provides an approximate count of the animals, plants, fungi, and other species in a particular area. In 2011, a Bioblitz, comprising 5000 people, was organized in Saguaro National Park in Arizona. This citizen science program worked for 24-hours and reported the presence of multiple species. Importantly, they discovered one new specie of bryophyte.

The Future of Citizen Science

Steffen Fritz, a specialist in Earth observation and citizen science at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, stated the need for global acceptance and institutionalization of citizen science. Additionally, the lingering concern about citizen science's quality and reliability of data has to be overcome. François Taddei, the co-founder of the Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity in Paris, believes that citizen science can revive critical analytical thinking, especially among children. 


  • Haklay, M. et al. (2021) What Is Citizen Science? The Challenges of Definition. In: Vohland K. et al. (eds) The Science of Citizen Science. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-58278-4_2
  • SturtzSreetharan, C., et al. (2021) Citizen Social Scientists' Observations on Complex Tasks Match Trained Research Assistants', Suggesting Lived Experiences are Valuable in Data Collection. Citizen Science: Theory and Practice. 6(1). pp.37. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/cstp.449
  • Irwin, A. (2018) No PhDs needed: how citizen science is transforming research. Nature. 562. pp. 480-482. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-07106-5
  • Ullrich, C. (2012) Citizen science. [Online] Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/citizen-science/

Last Updated: Apr 28, 2022

Dr. Priyom Bose

Written by

Dr. Priyom Bose

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.


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