PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


Online citizen science projects – widening public participation in scientific research?

Vickie Curtis  

Online citizen science projects enable non-specialist participants to analyse scientific data wherever there is a connection to the Internet. The number of projects has increased substantially over the past decade with the potential to enlist hundreds of thousands of participants. Many projects have online communities that permit interaction between participants, and between citizen scientists and professional scientists. Online discussions can promote informal science learning, and facilitate collaboration. Research examining participation in three online citizen science projects (Foldit, Planet Hunters and Folding@home) has shown that the number of active participants in these projects is much smaller than those who initially register or make an initial contribution. Among active participants are smaller groups of more dedicated individuals known as 'core' participants who sustain projects by carrying out the bulk of the work. Data collected through surveys, interviews and participant observation has shown that active and core participants in these three projects are more likely to be male, well-educated, from developed countries, confident with digital technologies, and have an interest (or formal educational qualification) in science. They are motivated to take part because they have an interest in science, and want to make a contribution to scientific research. Online interaction with other participants and with professional scientists can be an important motivator for sustained participation over time. Findings from this study suggest that some online citizen science projects may be limited in their appeal and that those setting up projects may need to consider how they may widen participation. The format of the project, the level of difficulty of the task, how and where the project is promoted, and project features that support online interaction, especially between professional scientists and citizen scientists, should be considered by developers of future projects.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.