What are Citizen Sciences?

15 April 2020


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

Taking the energy and innovation that has gone on in the world of citizen science has the potential to be useful to the worlds of governance and public policy, particularly during moments of crisis, suggested Dr Rob Doubleday, opening the first session of CSaP’s Spring 2020 Virtual Citizen Science Conference. However, to understand what we can learn from the citizen sciences, we must first understand what citizen sciences are.

Professor Muki Haklay’s work has highlighted the ambiguity in what is considered “citizen science”, emphasizing that different people define the boundaries of citizen science in different ways, and there are a wide range of different understandings concerning which sets of practices and levels of citizen involvement are within or outside the boundaries of this concept.

Meanwhile, Professor Jennifer Gabrys' work on citizen sensing has explored the concept of citizenship in scientific participation, and suggests that citizen science is a way of expressing political agency, wherein individuals become citizen scientists by undertaking environmental observations and become citizens by articulating their rights participation and a healthy environment. She suggests that the proliferation of citizen sciences are a way to expand possibilities for collective inquiry and action.

Professor Alan Irwin, a leading scholar in the study of citizen sciences, noted that we see citizen activities in the sciences taking place at various levels and various forms, including action-oriented projects, virtual and educational projects, investigations, and conservation projects. Reflecting on what he has encountered over the course of his career, Professor Irwin suggested that there is value in the generality of the term “citizen science”, and there is a plurality of citizen sciences, which are thought about in different ways, and which include co-produced projects and citizen-defined frameworks. Moreover, just because a citizen science activity begins in one place or domain, doesn’t mean it has to stay there – projects evolve, and may draw upon different resources or work in different ways throughout their life course.

Professor Irwin further highlighted that citizen science has some virtues, including its ability to combine an increasing amount of scientific data with the building of social capital and community leadership. It also expands scientific literacy and environmental awareness. As we think about the citizen sciences, we need to keep an open mind, balancing critique and the potentiality of these approaches.

There are challenges when it comes to citizen science, particularly where it comes to the relationship between citizen science and scientific institutions, including questions of how to incorporate practices of ethics and accountability in citizen science. Professor Irwin has concluded that citizen sciences offer a powerful provocation to the operating structures of traditional scientific domains, challenging the career and reward structures which commonly define institutional scientific trajectories.


Many the sessions from CSaP’s Spring 2020 Virtual Citizen Science Conference, including all the talks from our “what are citizen sciences?” session are available as lightning talks in the Citizen Science Playlist on our YouTube Channel. You can listen now here:

Cover Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

Professor Jennifer Gabrys

Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge