The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science

‘The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science’ is a fairly slim and small format book. Darlene Cavalier and Eric B. Kennedy edited this short collection of papers that cadsc_0117me out earlier in 2016. The book is part of a series, from the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (CSPO) at Arizona State University. The series aims are for ‘These books are brief, clear, and to-the-point, while at the same time tackling urgent topics across a range of complex techno-scientific subjects. The overall aim is to deliver thought-provoking contributions that explore the complex interactions among science, technology, politics, and society.and Citizen Science is clearly successful in doing this.

The book’s 6 chapters provide an excellent, and indeed, thought provoking, introduction to the field of citizen science. Darlene Cavalier introduce the topic with her personal journey into citizen science, and how local interest, career opportunities, and useful suggestions that led her to come up with initiatives such as Science Cheerleaders and SciStarter.

Eric Kennedy’s chapter provides an overview of citizen science, and importantly, addressing the all too often common question about the quality of the information, emphasising that it’s fitness-for-use that matter. The chapter is written from a perspective of science and policy studies and pays particular attention to the use of citizen science for policy – including the challenges that it faces, the multiple goals that a project might be expected to fulfil, as well as unintended outcome (e.g. undermining government led monitoring). He also highlights the need for policy to support citizen science – from a national level to the institution ethics committee level. This chapter is fairly dense with potential ‘hyperlinks’ and issues that you would want to explore more (including conceptualisation of science in society) and is doing this introduction mostly well.

In an excellent chapter by Caren Cooper and Bruce Lewenstein, the two meanings of citizen science are explored. The one that originate from the Alan Irwin (1995) book, emphasising the responsibility of science to society, which they call ‘democratic’ citizen science, while at the other end of the spectrum they position ‘participatory’ citizen science as practice in which people mostly contribute observations or efforts to the scientific enterprise, which originated with Rick Bonney (1996) work at Cornell Lab of Ornithology. While I’m not 100% convinced that ‘participatory’ is the correct word for the more top down citizen science that is closer to crowdsourcing, citizen science, the chapter is doing a very good job by providing concrete examples for each type of citizen science as well as demonstrating that this is not a dichotomy, and things are more mixed.

Robert Dunn and Holly Menninger chapter on turning learning the life sciences into research through citizen science, as well as David Coil on Citizen Microbiology, provide a vivid demonstration of the potential of citizen science to change existing processes, as well as making the complex process of taking samples and ensuring their quality, more transparent and open. Both chapters provide a lot to consider on how processes of teaching can be enhanced through active participation – such as Dunn and Menninger provocation to turn dissections into outlier detection in physiological studies.

In another outstanding chapter, Lili Bui discusses the important aspects of communicating a project, and what are the necessary ways by which project owners need to consider how their project will be promoted. She is pointing to public service broadcasting as a natural ally of citizen science, and show how such collaboration might work. This is something to watch as the Crowd and the Cloud series is getting ready to be broadcast. The chapter is providing the practical information, but also the first stages of conceptualising how people are going to hear about a given project.

Gwen Ottinger is also providing an excellent summary of social movement based citizen science. These are projects that are sometimes named civic science, and surely fall into either action research or cases of community led project. Ottinger shows the special characteristics of this specific version of citizen science, including the need to allow methods to be ‘hacked’, legitimacy, the consulting role of scientists, and other critical issues. She also demonstrates how tensions between doing the science right, and achieving results with good enough science can, and will, emerge in these situations.

In the final chapter, Cavalier and Kennedy are developing the themes of the book and suggesting the places where citizen science can play a role in decision-making processes.

Overall, the book provides a light introduction to citizen science – not all citizen science is captured, but by reading it you can find what is citizen science and how it can play a role in policy decision. Its chapters are the perfect length to serve in teaching or discussion about citizen science, and the book itself is inexpensive (about £7).


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Professor of GIScience, University College London

One thought on “The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science”

  1. It’s a great little book with many insights that resonate and meaningful observations like: “the act of co-creation is time-consuming, laborious, intensive and messy, much like the process of science itself. Yet we think the payoffs, if we can achieve them, …. will be totally worth it.” (Dunn & Menninger P68). I also like: “Scholarly public engagement won’t work if it takes place at the scholar’s normal glacial pace…..” (Alex Pang in his introduction) how true! Let’s hope this book is widely read.

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