Citizen Science in Oxford English Dictionary

At the end of June, I noticed a tweet about new words in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED):

I like dictionary definitions, as they help to clarify things, and the OED is famous for careful editing and finding how a term is used before adding it. Being in the OED is significant for Citizen Science, as it is a recognised “proper” term. At the same time, the way that OED define citizen science, and its careful work in finding out when it was first used can help to emphasise some interesting aspects. This is how.

Here is the definition, in all its glory:

citizen science n. scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.

1989   Technol. Rev. Jan. 12/4   Audubon involves 225 society members from all 50 states in a ‘citizen science’ program… Volunteers collect rain samples, test their acidity levels, and report the results to Audubon headquarters.
2002   M. B. Mulder & P. Coppolillo Conservation xi. 295/1   Citizen science has the potential to strengthen conservation practice in the developing world.
2012   M. Nielsen Reinventing Discov. vii. 151   Citizen science can be a powerful way both to collect and also to analyze enormous data sets.

citizen scientist n.  (a) a scientist whose work is characterized by a sense of responsibility to serve the best interests of the wider community (now rare);  (b) a member of the general public who engages in scientific work, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions; an amateur scientist.

1912   Manch. Guardian 11 Sept. 4/2   Trafford, thus serenely established, should…have returned to his researches with a new confidence and content and become a noble citizen-scientist.
1936   Headmaster Speaks 65   Could not Science…turn out a race of citizen scientists who do not make an absolute religion of the acquisition of new scientific knowledge however useless or harmful it may be?
1949   Collier’s 16 July 74/3   By 1930 most citizen-scientists had perfected a technique which brought gin to its peak of flavor and high-octane potency five minutes after the ingredients had been well mixed.
1979   New Scientist 11 Oct. 105/2   The ‘citizen-scientist’, the amateur investigator who in the past contributed substantially to the development of science through part-time dabbling.
2013   G. R. Hubbell Sci. Astrophotogr. xiii. 233   A citizen scientist in the astronomical field has a unique opportunity because astronomy is a wholly observational science.

Dictionaries are more interesting than they might seem. Here are 3 observations on this new definition:

First, the core definition of ‘citizen science’ is interestingly inclusive, so community based air quality monitoring to volunteer bird surveys and running climate models on your computer at home are all included. This makes the definition useful across projects and types of activities.

Second, the term ‘citizen scientist’ captures two meanings. The first is noteworthy, as it is the one that falls well within Alan Irwin’s way of describing citizen science, or in Jack Stilgoe’s pamphlet that describes citizen scientists. Notice that this meaning is not now the most common to describe a citizen scientist, but scientists that are active in citizen science usually become such citizen scientists (sorry for the headache!).

Third, it’s always fun to track down the citations that OED uses, as it tries to find the first use of the phrase. So let’s look at the late 20th century citations for ‘citizen science’ and ‘citizen scientist’ (the ones from the early 20th century are less representative of current science in my view).

The first use of ‘citizen science’ in the meaning that we now use can be traced to an article in MIT Technology Review from January 1989. The article ‘Lab for the Environment’ tells the story of community-based laboratories to explore environmental hazards, laboratory work by Greenpeace, and Audubon’s recruitment of volunteers in a ‘citizen science’ programme. The part that describes citizen science is provided below (click here to get to the magazine itself). Therefore, groups such as the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science are linked directly to this use of citizen science. 

MIT Technology Review 1989

Just as interesting is the use of ‘citizen scientist’. It was used 10 years earlier, in an article in New Scientist that discussed enthusiasts researching Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO) and identified ‘ufology’ as a field of study for these people. While the article is clearly mocking the ufologists as unscientific, it does mention, more or less in passing, the place of citizen-scientists, which is “all but eliminated” by the late 1970s (click here to see the original magazine). This resonates with many of the narratives about how citizen science disappeared in the 20th century and is reappearing now. 



If you would like to use these original references to citizen science and citizen scientists, here are the full references (I’ll surely look out for an opportunity to do so!):

Kerson, R., 1989, Lab for the Environment, MIT Technology Review, 92(1), 11-12

Oberg, J., 1979, The Failure of the ‘Science’ of Ufology, New Scientist, 84(1176), 102-105



Thanks to Rick Bonney who asked some questions about the definition that led to this post!

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Professor of GIScience, University College London

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