What is Citizen Science?

What is Citizen Science?
by Trinity College Dublin

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you should be able to:

  • Define what Citizen Science means in general and in your own research context
  • Understand the sociocultural and technological factors/environment that are giving rise to Citizen Science
  • Identify and describe the major stakeholder groups involved in Citizen science and their viewpoints
  • Recognise the benefits of Citizen Science for practitioners, scholarly knowledge production in general and humanities in particular and  the society at large.
  • Understand the major challenges Citizen Science

The advent of digital technologies opened up radically new potentials in innovation and dissemination in all scientific areas. Such new innovations, new connections between people and resources, and changes in practice have fundamentally altered how researchers collaborate, how knowledge is shared, and how science is organised.

In parallel to these technological changes, social shifts have also been altering how we conceive of research.  People (not just professional researchers) have become more accustomed to taking advantage of access to information, including scientific results.  For many, the opportunity to apply expert knowledge or take part in the expansion of research is a source of pleasure and empowerment.

In addition, and indeed in response to this, the management of research is also reaching to incorporate citizens into science.  For one thing, research that is publicly funded should be available as a public good. Furthermore, however, enabling non-professional researchers to improve their awareness of research and expand their critical facilities is also of general benefit to society and its members.  For these reasons, promoting and encouraging citizen science is a growing feature in national and European policy.

The vision of Citizen Science is an inspiring one.  Science becomes more available than ever to the broader society and this pertains not only to access to knowledge but also to access to knowledge creation. Citizens are no longer merely passive consumers, subjects or recipients of scientific endeavours but can also actively shape scientific matters or even bring new research questions and projects to the table.

Ted talk video: Citizen Science – Everybody counts

The opportunities to participate in citizen science are boundless. There is a wide variety of projects currently out there that people choose to participate as a hobby, out of interest, or curiosity. Participating in all these kind of projects is easy. Often, volunteers only need to have a mobile phone or access to the internet to collect and submit observations and to see results. These emergent, accessible platforms make it possible to help the USGS measure and record earthquake tremors; join NASA’s effort in counting passing meteors, and even help monitor noise and light pollution in our communities. Platforms like Project NOAH, SciSpy and iNaturalist provide free mobile apps for participants to share photos and observations of wildlife and nature in their backyards, cities, and towns. The idea behind these projects is that anyone, anywhere can participate in meaningful scientific research. From counting stars in galaxies, monitoring city traffic, recognizing and tagging buildings in old photos, deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, building knowledge bases on Wikipedia or playing games to unfold protein structures, non-academic contributions to the advancement of science can take a huge variety of forms.

Definitions of Citizen Science

“Citizen Science is the inclusion of members of the public in some aspect of scientific research. “

(Eitzel, M. et al. 2017)

“As technology makes us more connected, we can only hope that science will become more accessible to more curious ppl and not just thought of an endeavour that only experts can understand or appreciate. The community of scientists can grow in all kinds fields and grow larger and wider reaching than ever.”

(Hank Green, videoblogger of the SciShow Youtube channel)

“Citizen Science refers to the general public engagement in scientific research activities when citizens actively contribute to science either with their intellectual effort or surrounding knowledge or with their tools and resources.”

(Sanz et al. 2014: 8)

“Citizen science bridges gaps by harnessing the power of people who are motivated by curiosity, a desire to advance research, or a concern about environmental conditions in their communities, then connecting them to projects that benefit from their energy and dedication.”


Connecting non-experts who are curious about the world with research projects is an extremely powerful instrument through which to find solutions for the societal problems of our age faster and investigate them on a much larger scale than it could be done in laboratories or research groups alone. For instance, researchers of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Washington had been investigating effective solutions to fold structures of certain proteins for a long time when they decided to release the problem to the public. In collaboration with the University of Washington Center for Game Science, in 2011 they launched the game Foldit, an online puzzle video game about protein folding. In just ten days, some 236.000 citizen scientists helped, as players of the game,  decipher the crystal structure of the M-PMV retroviral protease, a monkey virus which causes human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS), a scientific problem that had been unsolved for 15 years.


Citizen Science in different national contexts: