Today, Caren Cooper new book Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery is going on sale in the UK. The book has been out in the USA for about a year, and it is a good point to review it.
The library of citizen science books is growing – there are the more literary books such as a diary of a citizen scientist, or citizen scientist, and a growing set of books that are edited collections such as Dickinson and Bonney Citizen Science: Public Participation in Environmental Research or the accessible The Rightful Place of Science: citizen science.
Caren Cooper book is adding to this collection something important – a popular science book that provides an overview of the field, phenomena, and the movement of citizen science. As I was reading the book, I recognised the major challenge that she faced. Introducing citizen science is a complex issue: it happens in many areas of science that don’t always relate to each other, it got different structures and relationships between the scientists and the participants, and it can be close and personal, or remote and involving many thousands of people in online activities. In addition to this, citizen science can lead to many outcomes: improving education, contributing to a scientific project, self-empowerment and learning, addressing a local environmental problem and community cohesion, to name but a few. Packing it all into an accessible and engaging book is quite a feat.
Cooper has the experience in communicating citizen science through various blog posts that she published over the past 5 years and some of them have set the ground for this excellent book. The way she balanced the different aspects of citizen science is by taking different scientific fields as the main classification for the chapters, with 10 chapters covering different areas where citizen science have been used – from meteorology to public health. Each chapter provides both the factual information about the type of citizen science that is being used in it, as well as engaging stories and descriptions of the participants in them so we have a real and concrete image of how citizen science is being practiced.
Through the chapters, the reader is becoming familiar with the different modes and mechanisms that are being used in citizen science. For example, she uses the Brony@home project as a way to introduce volunteer computing and showing how the interactions around it can be meaningful and engaging, thus not marginalising this form of citizen science. Another example is the discussions in a later chapter on the use of Patients Like Me as a platform for citizen science, and the way that some of its experiment are challenging common medical practices in the ALS study on the impact of lithium.
One fantastic aspect of the book is the way that it respects and values all the forms of citizen science and the participants, and provide the reader with an opportunity to understand that it can come in many shapes, and she describes the difficulties and triumphs that came out from different studies, different forms of engagement, and different disciplines. She is providing a clear thread to link all these cases through the progression that she makes throughout the book from scientist-led projects (opening with Whewell tide study) and moving towards community-led studies towards the end, with examples from environmental justice campaigns. All these cases are described with warmth and humour that makes the material accessible and enjoyable to read.
Throughout the book, Cooper is making it clear that she sees citizen science as a critical part of the current landscape of science and society relationship, and she addresses some of the issues that are being argued about citizen science – for example, data quality – heads on. The book is making a strong advocacy for scientists and people who are involved in science communication to use citizen science as a way to improve the linkage between society and science.
The book is focusing, mostly, on American projects, case studies and practices – including social and cultural ones, but not to a degree that it makes it difficult to a reader from outside the US to understand. Only in a handful of cases I had to check on Wikipedia what a term or a phrase mean.
Overall, the book is engaging, enjoyable and informative. If you want an up-to-date introduction to citizen science, this book will open up the field to you. If you are working in a citizen science project or involved in developing one, you will learn new things – I did!
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