Introducing: ECSA Characteristics of Citizen Science

Today the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) is launching a document that is aimed to help with identifying the type of Image of the first page of ECSA characteristics of citizen science activities that belong to citizen science. The document “ECSA Characteristics of Citizen Science” is coming ready with an interpretation document, which is called “ECSA Characteristics of Citizen Science – Explanation Notes“. They are aimed to work together (and build on) the highly successful “ECSA 10 Principles of Citizen Science“. So what are these documents? Why do we need to define the characteristics of citizen science and who exactly need them? 

I would state from the start – these documents are attempting to make a fuzzy cloud shape out of a sharp cornered box, it’s trying to have a box that is fuzzy and have a lot of out-of-the-box space. They are trying to avoid a strict definition of citizen science, while at the same time list – over 5 pages – what sort of things you can expect in a citizen science project (which is, at the end of the day, a form of a definition). This seems like a very complex way to go about it – so why not just have “ECSA definition of citizen science”? 

The answer for this is “it’s complex”. You can see that in a specific context, a definition can be very useful – especially if you need to make decisions. For example, if you are creating a national website for citizen science, you want to be transparent and open about what type of projects will be hosted there – this is why the coordinators of the Austrian platform Österreich forscht set out quality criteria for their platform, an one of the early document for the EU-Citizen.Science platform deals with criteria for inclusion and exclusion. There is also a need that comes from policymakers and research funders – as citizen science gains more profile, the response to calls such as the “Science with and for Society” programme of Horizon 2020 increased. When making funding decisions, it is important to be open and transparent about what types of projects will be eligible for funding and support. There is also an importance in a clear definition for members of the public who participate in a project, and for scientists. Although this is a fairly small group, for some participants it will be important to know if what they are participating in is a bona fide citizen science, and scientists who heard about citizen science and want to offer a project need to know if what they are offering is, indeed, appropriate. So there are multiple groups, who are not experts in citizen science, who need to know if a given project should be part of the area of citizen science or not.

However, once the Österreich forscht criteria were published in a journal paper with a call for an international definition of citizen science, came the criticism and the warning that a too narrow a definition can harm citizen science in the long run (I have contributed to the response letter). So this created a problem – on the one hand, there is a need for definition, and on the other hand, we need to avoid a narrow one. 

Two opportunities emerge last autumn – I had time as part of a short-term research fellowship at the CRI in Paris, and the EU-Citizen.Science project received requests from policy officers from the European Commission and from the Open Science Policy Platform (OSPP) to come up with a definition.

Page image of OpenStreetMap Wiki on use casesIn order to deal with the conundrum of creating a definition without making it narrow and precise, I have suggested an approach that I originally learned from the OpenStreetMap licence change process: instead of starting from the definition, start with case studies and identify all the aspects that you want to include in a definition. Once you have clarity about the plurality and the characteristics of what you want, it is possible to articulate them. The process in OpenStreetMap was lengthy and not without problems, but the case studies approach seemed to work well. The reason to use the case studies (or vignettes) approach for citizen science is that it allows for context. For example, while it seems simple to ask “is a project that pays participants can be called citizen science?”, an answer cannot be provided without clarity about the context – in some case will be appropriate, while in other it will not. By including context and issues, it can be lead to a much clearer understanding of people’s positions. I have consulted with ECSA team about this approach and we suggested the following methodology in early October 2019:

The development of the characteristics will be carried out through several online/offline workshops – currently envisaged about three of 2 to 3 hours. The first in mid/late October, the second one in November and the final one in December. This process should lead to an early draft that can be shared and commented on at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. To allow wider and deeper discussion, the effort with ECSA is envisaged to continue well into 2020, with scope for discussion during the annual conference in Trieste.

The process of engagement should progressively involve more people, both from within the citizen science practice communities and beyond. Comments should be sought from different relevant stakeholders, including the ECSA working group on national platforms, which is working on criteria for citizen science based on the Austrian experience as well as other working groups.

Wall with the word science on itThe suggested process is aimed at defining the “contours of citizen science” or “defining the landscape” and then developing a set of characteristics on the basis of the process. To identify these contours, we will start with identifying 30-50 types of activities – some of them within citizen science (bioblitz), some of them clearly outside (social survey), some in-between (an interactive exhibit in a science museum). They will be all described in more or less the same way (e.g. project owner, what is happening, what the participants do, how the results are used, payment to participants or payment to participate in the project …). These will be short descriptions (50-70 words), followed by a compilation of the case study, a survey that will include the case, a slider of “not citizen science” to “clearly citizen science”, alternative name, and space for notes. These descriptions will, eventually, be provided in the accompanying document to the characteristics but will not form part of them (similarly to the Robinson 2019 chapter and the 10 Principles).

The cases will be organised in a survey in which the people who answer see the cases in randomised order. Ideally, the participant can choose to stop when they want – even after 10 cases. They will then be asked a few demographic/professional questions, and about their knowledge of citizen science. The survey will be spread out to people in and outside the citizen science community. At the end of it, the opinions (as expressed in the slider) can define what clearly is inside and outside, and where the edge cases are. Once that is set, common characteristics across the projects will be distilled and set into different groupings. These will then be compiled to a final document.

This methodology was indeed followed through, with enhancements and improvements – with a working group of 25 people who participated in workshops, contributed their knowledge and connections, it was possible to progress with the design of the study – from identifying the framework and parameters that will use to construct the case studies, to the design of the survey (which was a vignette study), and the analysis of the results.  The survey was run in December 2019 and provided a very rich source of information – 330 people responded, and each case study received, on average, over 100 gradings and an indication of their degree of citizen science. The working group is currently working on a paper that will share the results.

With so much information, it was possible to identify the different characteristics that people disagree and agree on and construct from these the set of characteristics that are representing the views of a wide range of people on what is and what isn’t citizen science.

The characteristics are not without challenges – for example, the survey revealed a strong animosity towards commercially focused citizen science – something that we need to find a way to support in the future if we want citizen science to be able to sustain activities in the long run.

A lot of work of many people was done on these characteristics, and I would be interested to see how they are being picked up and use. The OSPP already endorsed them, which is a start.

The work was supported by the CRI short term fellowship and by my ERC grant ECSAnVis, as well as the EU-Citizen.Science project.



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Professor of GIScience, University College London

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