Effective? Valuable? The Dilemma of Citizen-science Projects

“I have been a fan of citizen science for many years, but I do not think the citizen science movement has had the educational impact that it could,” said Daniel C. Edelson, the Vice President for Education of National Geographic Society.

Dominique Brossard, Bruce Lewenstein and Rick Bonney discussed the evaluation of an informal science education project, The Birdhouse Network (TBN).  They used a pre-test before participants received the educational material and protocols and a post-test at the end of the field season, to figure out:

1)      Would participation in the TBN result in positive effects on the knowledge of bird biology among adult participants?

2)      Would it result in increased knowledge of the understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry? and

3)      Would it result in positive effects on attitudes toward science and the environment?

According to the result, the increase of participants’ knowledge of bird biology was comparatively obvious. However, their understanding of scientific process could not be statistically detected, and the attitude toward science was essentially unchanged. Therefore, by participating in a citizen-science program adults will not necessarily improve their understanding of scientific process, nor change their attitude toward science.

By the time TBN was done, citizen science had already lasted for more than 20 years. So such a result may sound a little bit negative, but personally, I think that due to the new technology we have today, citizen science project can be better built. But before we start to think how we can make the citizen-science projects more effective, there is one more question: What are the objectives of citizen-science?

Due to the large quantities of participants, citizen science projects are often used to help researchers to analyse gathered data, or gather data for researchers, such as ClimateWatch. It cannot be overstated that citizen science projects are more than collecting data, but it can be a dialogue between participants and professional scientists, and more than scientific knowledge can be involved.

Entertaining probably is the first expectation of most participants. People like having fun, and as we all know that learning with entertainment is much more effective. But it’s not enough, many citizen-science projects are time-consuming. People expect get some rewards for donating their time, and they deserve it. Educating is well involved in most citizen science projects, but most of them are specifically narrowed down to the subjects relating to the projects, and that make it too pragmatic; Feedback can help the educational result as well. The most difficult part may be to motivate participants, but that can be achieved by some ways, including making it easy to learn, easy to do, offer excitement, even provide challenge.

But the question is: Does getting participants’ attitudes changed match the objectives of citizen-science projects? Apparently it’s not necessarily true. So do you still think it’s valuable to change their attitudes?


Brossard, D, Lewenstein, B and Bonney, R. 2005. Scientific knowledge and attitude change: The impact of a
citizen science project, International Journal of Science Education, 27: 9, 1099 – 1121.

Cooper, C. B., Dickinson, J., Kelling, S., Phillips, T., Rosenberg, K. V., Shirk, J., & Bonney, R. (2009). Citizen Science: A Developing Tool for Expanding Science Knowledge and Scientific Literacy. Bioscience59(11), 977-984

Edelson, D. C., (2012). Unlocking the Educational Potential of Citizen Science. Esri News. Retrieved from here


2 comments so far

  1. Aaron Cull on

    Every project is different, but from a scientists point of view I’d say the majority are set up with the objective of increasing observations to get a more accurate result. This then would not be in line with changing participants attitudes.

    I believe it is valuable to increase positive attitudes toward a scientific project, but it can come at a cost. If the main draw is entertainment then we have to be careful with our approach. One way would be to set up a competition where the citizen who contributed the most to the project wins a prize … but then the results may be fabricated in order to win.

    I suppose in the end many citizen science projects have good intentions and could have a higher number of results, but is it worth the number of resources that go into building it? The validity and accuracy of the results would probably be the best indicator which would then reinforce an objective different to changing participants attitudes.

  2. noelynn on

    There has been so much discovery in science and at the same time so much undiscovered. Science projects should be exciting and aimed at keeping the curiosity and learning momentum at optimum. I am just thinking out loud, if the projects are attractive in terms of the specific subject, then perhaps it can encourage and attract more scientists to participate.

    When things are monotonous, life becomes boring unless and until there is motivation at some sort. Yes,and I agree to what you highlighted that entertaining would probably a good start as far as participants involvement is concerned. So then one can ask, how effective and valuable is the project? To answer this, the scientist can question his or her contribution. If the scientist is offering himself with a good intention, then possible change of value, attitudes and perhaps effective can be sensed.

    This is a good post! I like the questions that trigger the discussions. Good work!!

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