What’s in it for the Citizen Scientists?

What’s in it for the Citizen Scientists?
by Trinity College Dublin

You’ve designed your project approach. You’ve recruited your citizen scientists, but how do you now ensure that they feel fully invested in the project and its outcomes? Appropriately rewarding and acknowledging fellow citizens for their participation is a cornerstone in designing Citizen Science projects. Recognising diverse forms of expertise in and contributions to knowledge production is among the core values of the inclusive open research culture Citizen Science is embedded into. And of course, from a more pragmatic perspective, carefully selected reward mechanisms are also instrumental in keeping participants motivated throughout their period of contribution.

Issues around authorship

Listing citizen contributors as co-authors of any resulting paper is probably the strongest form of acknowledgement that can also work as a reward. Although currently this is not the most common practice to give visibility to non-expert contributions, examples are easy to find e.g. among outputs from Zooniverse or SciStarter. In a blog post published in 2017 on the Galaxy Zoo blog (find the link below in the Further learning section) ,you can read a short interview with two citizen scientist authors who share their experiences about their motivations, authorship and future ambitions.

The Stardust@home SciStarter project takes authorship-as recognition and rewards even further. The project summary states that:

“In recognition of the critical importance of the Stardust@home volunteers, the discoverer of an interstellar dust particle appears as a coauthor on any scientific paper by the Stardust@home team announcing the discovery of the particle. The discoverer also has the privilege of naming the particle!”

Still, non-expert contributors’ participation in the ‘publication game’ is not free from complexities as it entails a range of ethical, epistemological and practical considerations.

First, a truly democratic approach to knowledge production that is advertised and propagated in Citizen Science agendas would suggest that publishing opportunities and taking authorship over scholarly works should be accessible for non-expert contributors too. On the other hand,  scholarly publishing is deeply embedded into a complex set of institutionalised excellence criteria, established expert practices and broader power dynamics of scientific knowledge production that imply a range of written and unwritten rules not easy to comply with for an outsider. For instance, there have been instances of project outputs receiving criticism for a writing style that was “not scientific enough”and sent back for significant re-writes. This may soon change, however, with the increase in dedicated journals edited by academics for a lay-audience.  This also points at the long and bumpy road from the paper submission to publication of the final peer-reviewed version that non-expert authors are not necessarily aware of when giving permission to be listed as co-authors.

Contributions and authorship

Raising awareness towards all aspects of scholarly production that an author should be accountable and responsible for takes us to a second consideration, that is, what kind of contribution deserves authorship. The authorship recommendations of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), also applied by the Citizen Science Association’s official publication forum, the Citizen Science Theory and Practice journal is a commonly accepted set of recommendations which helps the disambiguating whether contributions of citizen scientists should be listed as authors or rather should be only mentioned in the acknowledgement section. This latter solution is most convenient and accepted by journals being a more flexible way to gain recognition to all types of contributions regardless on the level of involvement of participants, the types of their contributions or their attitudes towards authorship or preference for other forms of reward.

Other reward mechanisms

Being listed as an author of the research article certainly serves as the highest value currency within academia but might easily lose its attractiveness outside of this context, especially if contributors do not want to expose themselves to all the obligations and additional work mentioned above that is coming with scientific authorship. When it comes to (public) acknowledgement, non-expert contributors might prefer to be mentioned on more public platforms that are closer to the reach of general public such as project websites, blogs, popular scientific journals or in local events.

Academics and citizen scientists alike may take different perspectives on what makes their collaboration successful and rewarding. One of such major difference is that while in the traditional scientific context the products and outputs of the project tend to be of primary interest (e.g. the significance of results in the light of the hypothesis, data quality, the prestige of publication etc.), these become less important for citizen scientists whose focus primarily lies in the process of knowledge creation. For them, the quality of interactions between both fellow citizens and their expert supervisors, their involvement and user experience as contributors, the extent to which their involvement satisfied their curiosity, the strength of the community-building process over the course of the project or the difference the project outcome can make in their immediate environment are much more relevant indicators. Keeping these different perspectives in mind might help to avoid unwanted gifts, and find reward mechanisms – in addition to acknowledgement – that are truly meaningful and contextually appropriate, such as collectible online badges, scoring systems, or hosting local events to present the project outcomes to the volunteers and acknowledge their efforts in their own environment.

Dr. Amy Clotworthy discusses her investigations into the experiences of the volunteers in a Digitisation citizen science project at the Danish National Archive

You can also download an edited transcript of this interview here: Amy Clotworthy Interview on the Citizen Scientist experience – April 2019 PDF

Best practices for giving credit and acknowledgement

When designing a Citizen Science project, the importance of planning ahead cannot be emphasised enough – this general remark is also true for making decisions about the most appropriate rewarding and acknowledging strategies. Will the scale and scope of the project allow for listing each contributor individual in the acknowledgement? What will be the main platform and expected intensity of interactions with citizen scientists? Are there possibilities for different levels of involvement? What are the possible factors that help them feel more comfortable and fulfilled during their period of contribution? What other types of currencies exist that make sense outside of academia? – questions like this help in better understanding the motivations of participants and offer rewards that are truly meaningful to them.

To gain insight about the different perspectives of success criteria and motivations, opening a dialogue with the participants about rewards and acknowledgements in an earliest possible phase of the collaboration is favourable. In the case of planned co-authorship with non-expert contributors, being explicit about what exactly authorship entails in terms of responsibilities before, during and after the publication process and obtaining an informed and written consent from the future co-authors can eliminate a range of complexities.

Your progress through the "Citizen Science in the (Digital) Arts and Humanities" module