Engaging the wider society in science – Part 1

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At the end of last year, I wrote a report for the European project HERCULES: http://hercules-landscapes.eu/. The aim of the project was to explore motivation in citizen science projects. I sent a short survey to practitioners and academics to explore the current practices. The report I wrote was published in annex of the Report on survey including geolocated datasets: http://www.hercules-landscapes.eu/tartalom/HERCULES_WP6_D6_1_ALUFR_inclA…. Here is my first article, reporting on the survey results.

More and more amateur scientists enthusiastically take part in science projects, but it can be challenging to link professional researchers to these amateur or “citizen” scientists. Citizen science project platforms, like Scistarter.com, are great ways to make this connection. However, this platform is intended only for amateurs who already know they want to take part in scientific projects, and for scientists who want highly-committed participants who have often already taken part in other projects. However, some projects are bound within a restricted geographic or community: some depend on a uniform geographic data collection, or on the contrary need data in a very specific location, and others need to have a representation of society as a whole or a specific community.

There are many ways to engage communities in citizen science projects, either online, in person, or with a smartphone. However, it takes time as well as human and technical resources. So, what exactly are the current practices? Twenty seven project leaders said they had considered local to large scale issues.

Here I consider two factors that scientists need to consider when deciding to organize a citizen science project: human resources and communication strategy. There was no obvious trend that could be found between these projects, which shows that there is no one-size fits all.

Human resources

Communicating citizen science projects to members of the public is key to their success. Yet a quarter of the projects surveyed did not have dedicated outreach staff, suggesting that communication was either done through another channel or that outreach was minimal. Regardless if projects were done online, through a smartphone, in person, or a share of these platforms, motivation was often a part time task (e.g. member of staff working once a week).


Figure 1: Share of working load for the staff related to recruiting participants in citizen science projects

The relative small investment in human resources shows that communication is mainly a part-time or secondary task to citizen science project organizers. This can be an issue, and a few project leaders shared their frustration with the difficulty of recruiting participants. The first link between the community and the scientists is often the human resources invested into recruiting participants; these resources are in charge of the communication.

Communication strategy

The options presented related to factors external to the project (e.g. pre-existing interest of the subject, and pre-existing communities). It also suggested reasons related to the communication strategy (using an online community, face-to-face events, Internet-based events, and the offer of a reward).


Figure 2: Key motivation from the 26 project in our sample

A large number of projects motivate participants through ‘fun’ activities, even when the subject is interesting to a large part of the society. Using an existing community and organizing face-to-face events also seemed to be used more often than doing online data collection. Current practices therefore show that face-to-face strategies are still important.

Lessons learned

All the project leaders said that they would improve marketing strategy, data collection, and impact if they could go back and start over.  A third of the project leaders (9 respondents, 34%) said they would improve data collection. Improvement included considering the data (offer more data to collect or more tasks to carry out, and reduce the time spent on task), the activity platform (make collection simple, use mobile phones), fieldwork (make sure there is enough funding), training, but also participants (give them progressive responsibility).

Another third of the project leaders (8 respondents, 30%) considered improving marketing strategies, especially in terms of the platform used: social media, online campaigns and communities, and local communities. They answered that it would be important to consider the motivation of participants beforehand, to ensure feedback was given to participants, to ensure that rewards were adequate, and suggested to use personal stories to illustrate the project. They also stressed the importance of communicating the goals and capabilities of the project.

Finally, three project leaders (11%) mentioned the importance of considering the impact of the project, either by finding partners in education, refining the tasks to be more policy or scientifically relevant, or even considering the methodology of scientific publications beforehand.

Overall, most project leaders reported being satisfied with their citizen science strategy. Only one person, who seemed to have been leading their project on their own, said that they would think twice about doing it again due to the high level of organization. Most project leaders added additional comments to their answer, often stressing the fact that the method they chose was the only way for them to collect such data, the benefits of this approach outweighed the difficulties, and the policy or educational impact made the project worth doing. They also stressed the importance of thinking ahead when designing the project.


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