Open Science and Citizen Science

When asked for positive examples of good open science practices, several of stakeholders interviewed within the framework of ROSiE pointed to citizen science, especially because of its enormous potential for social innovation. For example, one interviewee (research manager) referred to collaborative work between researchers and citizen scientists who, inspired by the citizen scientists’ pre-existing interest in programming language, shared programming skills on research datasets. She also stressed that interest in citizen science according to her experience is often associated with applied research projects and close collaboration with end-users or industry. This might be taken as an indication that the shift from traditional models of public engagement, where dialogue between science and society is limited, to intensive and influential exchange.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a deficit in terms of awareness of citizen science and the acquisition of appropriate methods. The research manager already referred to in the previous paragraph explained that educational needs analyses at her institution (a research performing organisation) indicate a high demand for training in citizen science approaches. In addition, more coordination work would be needed to ensure that existing knowledge about citizen science approaches is shared so that researchers can learn from each other and exchange ideas and experiences.

However, another interviewee views the current understanding of citizen science as problematic. In that view, there seems to be a misunderstanding about the relationship between science and society based on the assumption that science already provides a link to society by researching something that is in some way related to society. Citizen science, though, is about doing science with and for society, so that society is fully involved in finding solutions to problems that science could help to address.

Maintaining communication in this process appears to be of particular importance. In this respect, some important aspects arising are the following: 

  • Firstly, a two-way exchange between science and society to ensure that different perspectives are considered. 
  • Secondly, facilitating a dialogue that allows for careful consideration of alignment with societal values, needs and expectations. Thirdly, the concern that citizen science approaches and their potential often remain unnoticed. 

At the same time, concern was expressed about the danger of do-it-yourself or so-called garage research, perceived as a risky outcome of open science if implemented irresponsibly or incompetently. People need to be qualified to use data and a difference between institutionalised and non-institutionalised research was highlighted insofar as institutional researchers know the relevant methods and standards or at least are obliged to do so, whereas non-professional researchers have no such obligation. However, from the perspective of an experienced citizen science researcher, citizen scientists usually are interested in existing norms and cautious in their actions, so that the risks might be overstated.

In view of these diverse perspectives, it seems particularly significant for ROSiE to take a closer look at the connection between citizen science and responsible open science. Therefore, European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) provided an analysis of the relationship between open science and citizen science with a particular emphasis on issues related to the responsible conduct of research, which are briefly presented below: 

  • Research innovation is being increasingly influenced by market forces resulting to scientific developments and innovations that respond to a limited subset of the needs of society and citizens are being affected in a daily basis by research that is partially funded by their taxes. In this respect, it is natural to question why they shouldn’t have a greater say, so that research is more aligned with the needs of the people. A more inclusive deliberation (involving relevant stakeholders including the public) on the direction of research and innovation is therefore advisable. Citizens’ engagement increases the significance of research agendas for the broader society, thus enhancing the societal relevance of science, which, in turn, increases the possible impact of its outcomes.
  • Citizen science is of particular significance for the growing open science movement, as it takes, for example, open science activities beyond the purview of professional scientists’ circles by exploring the involvement of citizens in scientific research. One of the principal advantages of citizen science for academic researchers is seen to be the opportunity to widen dissemination and impact of their work (democratising science), while at the same time contribute to building trust in science
  • Among the key incentives and barriers for citizen engagement, the topic of interest, fun and recognition can be identified as supporting factors, and the neglect of privacy concerns and inadequate use of data can be identified as hindering factors. On the other hand, for scientists, data quality together with their limited resources (time, staff, funding) play a key role. This indicates that citizen science research may have a different set of incentives to those typically related with more academic reward systems.
  • Τhe so-called publish-or-perish culture creates a challenge for the advancement of citizen science and a reluctance among scientists to make use of this research approach as it often requires more time and effort and financial resources to carry out to come up with similar publishable outcomes. Moreover, as part of their main principles and similar to open science, citizen science outcomes are published in an open access format, where possible, which are still perceived by many researchers to have a lower prestige and a lower impact, thus further affecting their publications in journals with high journal impact factor. This can be overcome there is a need for the expansion of the current academic reputation systems; for this purpose, there is a need for measurement indicators and metrics that assess public engagement activities and the impacts achieved.
  • Some citizens or citizen groups may have relationships with private, non-profit, or political organizations, or they may volunteer to help collect data to advance their political agenda. To counter these conflicts of interests, a common strategy used is disclosure, embodying the virtues of openness and transparency; these are also important to safeguard the research methodology employed, taking into consideration the potential bias (unintended or not) during the implementation of engagement activities. 
  • Data ownership and intellectual property issues may arise in citizen science as participants or citizen groups may claim ownership over the data gathered and expect to have some control over how it is shared and used. In that sense, policymakers at the European level should debate on the use of open data by private companies for products or services subject to copyrights or patents. 
  • Open data policies need to be sensitive and allow citizen scientists control and judgment over the information that should be released for which specific incentives might be needed to encourage them to share their data. Researchers should set clear expectations in this regard by informing participants about rules and procedures for sharing data, including whom data may be shared with, when, and why. Though organisations within the EU are legally required to uphold privacy rights safeguarding personal data that has been collected or processed data by following the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the implementation of GDPR in large-scale citizen science projects has created a big challenge for small organisations that struggle with higher costs and implementation issues. 
  • Citizen science projects may have more challenges concerning data quality due to lack of training in scientific data management or research integrity. On the other hand, citizen science projects can have a positive impact not only on participants’ research skills increasing their scientific knowledge, but also for project leaders, since the previous also increases project data quality.
  • Τo enhance research integrity and data quality in citizen science, an effective approach is to make research as transparent as possible to others, creating thus opportunities to independently assess questionable or poor-quality data. To have a genuine and impactful citizen engagement, researchers should try not merely to increase the diversity of participants through the inclusion of women, indigenous people and other underrepresented groups, but actually to capture the diversity of the target population.
  • Challenges remain concerning the empirical configuration of the inclusion of citizens and citizen groups in open science, for example, in defining who constitutes the public in a specific context and how to account for biases of social norms and values in the production of knowledge. 
  • There is a lack of regulatory oversight for a number of citizen science research areas. This poses a challenge considering that allowing as many groups as possible to contribute to citizen science research and making it available to the public are among the most important values of citizen science. Thereafter, inevitably, some less rigorous or even fraudulent research will be disseminated. Conversely, limiting the number of groups being able to contribute (or increasing the participation prerequisites) by making more stringent gatekeeping decisions, researchers would start reproducing the very structure of professionalism in science that citizen science research tries to circumvent. 
  • In order to foster a culture of research integrity and commitment to ethics in citizen science, researchers and participants ought to be sensitised to ethical issues, removing obstacles and educating them about solutions.

Henceforth, it is strongly suggested that researchers, research institutions and other stakeholders elaborate guidelines for the participation of citizens in citizen science projects, explicitly state their roles and responsibilities from the outset, provide them with appropriate training on data collection and analysis, and provide education on the responsible conduct of research. All in all, if people cannot be confident in citizen science research findings, their outcomes will not be used, which is why citizen science ought to commit itself to rigorous standards of practice ensuring the integrity of research.