Have you heard the term "citizen science” and wondered what it means or how you can incorporate it into your research? Erasmus University Rotterdam researchers Prof.dr. Tine De Moor and Dr. Lysanne te Brinke conduct citizen science in innovative and unique ways. This article shares their perspectives, experiences, and best practices when working with citizens.
What is “citizen science” and why is it important?
Lysanne, who works with adolescents at Erasmus SYNC Lab, explains that, in her view, the distinction between traditional and citizen science “comes down to how often and in which phases of the research process citizens are actively engaged.” For example, in the traditional research process, the researchers design the study, select the research question, and develop the methods. They are the ones who collect data, publish articles and disseminate the findings. Citizens have a role if they participate in a survey or experiment; however, it is very passive. Alternatively, citizen science may involve the target group in multiple phases of the research process: from formulating the hypothesis to questionnaire co-creation, recruitment, data collection and dissemination. Lysanne clarifies that while citizen science includes the active involvement of the target group in multiple phases, it doesn't mean that citizens are engaged in every step of every citizen science study.
Since Lysanne began using the engaged research methodology two years ago, the approach to her work has changed drastically. From connecting with community centres in underrepresented neighbourhoods to involving citizen adolescents in multiple phases of her research to physically moving her workplace from the university into the community, every aspect of her study is designed to make it easier for genuine and engaged collaboration between the researchers and the society in which they work.
"The distinction between traditional and citizen science comes down to how often and in which phases of the research process citizens are actively engaged."
Tine has had projects whereby volunteers entered archival data, but these days spends much of her time engaging with societal partners to bring research to the non-academic world. One of her current projects, CollectieveKracht, involves building a knowledge exchange platform for stakeholders involved in the growing movement of citizen collectives. She also participates in various outreach activities, from bringing an academic perspective to political debates to translating recent research into keynote speeches for non-academic audiences to participating in academic conferences where she tries to convince fellow academics to engage with societal partners. She explains that, although working this way can be very time-consuming, "one of the reasons we do so is because we believe it makes science better. It makes it not only more relevant for society, but also it makes it better by getting in closer contact with your study objects or subjects."
What benefits do citizens get from working with researchers?
Tine and Lysanne agree that citizens, regardless of their age or background, are motivated by feeling heard and seeing how they contributed to research. However, the key is to provide the citizens with feedback on their contribution in a timely and non-academic way.
Monetary or other rewards can be effective, depending on the target group. For example, it can be as simple as offering pizza to a group of young people in exchange for their time and ideas. But sometimes, offering a reward can have an unexpected result.
"One of the reasons we do so is because we believe it makes science better. It makes it not only more relevant for society, but also it makes it better by getting in closer contact with your study objects or subjects."
Tine recalls a project where she needed “an army of researchers” to transcribe an Amsterdam-based archive of early marriage patterns, but she didn’t have the budget to do so. Instead, she turned to the VeleHanden website to recruit volunteer citizens to help with this task. In exchange for their effort, the citizens received "points" based on how much they contributed. These points, visible to everyone working on the project, could be accumulated and traded for actual books. "One of the things we discovered is that they didn't ask for those books because that would reduce their number of points." It turned out that the points inspired a sense of competition between the participants. The participants seemed to be looking at how many points everyone else had and didn't want to "lose" points by trading them for the actual reward (books). So, the solution was to allow people to exchange the points for the books without lowering the total number of accumulated points visible to other participants.
Tips for academics wishing to start engaging with citizens?
If you'd like to engage with citizens but aren't sure how, consider these tips:
- Invest time in building a network based on trust with stakeholders and the communities with whom you want to work. Consider, from their perspective, what they gain from partnering with you, and communicate it clearly.
- Benefits can be as simple as offering food, a certificate for their involvement or having an official title like "YoungXpert." Or, benefits might be more elaborate, whereby the most active participants receive money or are even listed as co-authors on the research paper.
- For the researcher, being flexible and putting yourself in the stakeholder's shoes are vital skills to develop when using these methods. For example, the project timeline for a researcher can span many months or years. In contrast, citizens might only want to contribute to a specific part or be actively involved in just one meeting. So, don't try to fit them into your own agenda or previous methods; instead, adjust yourself to them as much as possible. Just make sure you get back to them sooner than the end of the project, even if this is with preliminary results. The deserve to get a sneak preview!
- More tips? Join the Citizen Science Showcase Event on October 19.
Engaging with citizens can help researchers tackle societal challenges more effectively. In this way, the researcher can get a closer or more profound understanding of what's currently happening in parts of society they want to study and might not be closely involved with. When researchers and citizens work together on these problems, the opportunity to discover creative solutions that benefit everyone increases.