Citizen vs. Science

Sunday, March 13, 2016
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The Goose and the Common

So goes the 17th century protest song against the English enclosure movement. It is a lament against a double-whammy; not only do the rich and the powerful get away with taking what should belong to everyone, the commoners get nailed for using what should rightfully be theirs. Now history seems to be repeating during the current renaissance of citizen science.

“citizen science is research accomplished by engaging humans as ‘sensors’ to collect scientific data or as ‘processors’ to manipulate scientific data or to solve data analysis problems.”

The above is an actual “definition” of citizen science put forward by an academic. Not only is the definition wrong and misleading at best, it is condescending at its worst. Besides the fact that it is really talking about crowdsourcing as opposed to citizen science, the definition reduces citizen to parts of a machine, to sensors and processors, and that illustrates a fundamental problem with this way of thinking. In addition to condescension, this also displays the conceit of the research and academic industrial complex to appropriate citizen science for its own ends.


While it may be difficult to define citizen science, and doing so is also fraught with circumscribing a very varied phenomenon and movement to artificial boundaries, perhaps it is easier to recognize citizen science when we see it.

An amateur astronomer just made a stellar discovery about pulsars

K.N. Smith | Published: Thursday, December 8, 2016.

When a massive star dies, its self-collapsed core spins shining beams of intense radiation in opposite directions along its magnetic field. This is called a “pulsar.”

With his 30cm reflector telescope, André Van Staden wanted to look at the visible companion stars of these “black widow” pulsars, and in 2014 he found a list of them on University of Toronto astronomer John Antoniadis’ website. One, MSP J1723-2837, was in the right part of the sky to be visible from van Staden’s home in South Africa, and nobody had recorded a brightness curve – the rise and fall in the star’s brightness as it orbits the pulsar – for the star. Van Staden saw an opportunity to do something original. Over the next 15 months, he made about 3,000 observations with his telescope and CCD camera, mapping out a brightness curve for MSP J1723-2837’s companion star. Soon, he noticed something unusual in his data.

This is citizen science.

Public invited to help tackle antibiotic resistance

News / Published: 7 April 2017.

On the Zooniverse website, volunteers are shown a series of small, circular wells each containing Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes TB, and a different dose of an antibiotic. They are then asked to identify wells in which the bacteria have grown, helping the researchers to determine which antibiotics are effective at killing each specific strain of TB.

The project is led by researchers at the NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre, a partnership between the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Oxford. It is funded by Wellcome, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (opens in a new tab) and the MRC Newton Fund

This is not citizen science.

The DIY Scientist, the Olympian, and the Mutated Gene

David Epstein, ProPublica. January 15, 2016.

Jill Viles, a muscular dystrophy patient, had an elaborate theory linking the gene mutation that made her muscles wither to an Olympic sprinter named Priscilla Lopes-Schliep.

(I got) a personal note from a 39-year-old Iowa mother named Jill Viles. She was the muscular dystrophy patient, and she had an elaborate theory linking the gene mutation that made her muscles wither to an Olympic sprinter named Priscilla Lopes-Schliep. She offered to send me more info if I was interested.

—David Epstein, ProPublica

Very definitely, this is citizen science.

Characteristics of Citizen Science

Citizen science is somewhere between un- and underfunded, and is certainly not funded by institutional backers.

While the citizen scientist may collaborate with a regular scientist, it is the citizen who is clearly the initiator of the project. The reasons for the project could be one or more of:

  1. A last-ditch need when all else has failed;
  2. A desire to work in resource-constrained environments;
  3. A genuine itch that needs to be scratched.

And, citizen science seems to either actively reject or passively not seek to participate in the systems that institutions have created and nurtured: peer review, publications, hierarchy, promotions, etc.

So, if citizen science is for and by the citizens who are outside institutions, then, by definition, institutions can’t practice citizen science. Citizens United v. FEC notwithstanding, institutions can’t simultaneously be both institutions as well as individuals. It is the dilemma posed so eloquently by Claude Levi-Strauss in “Le Retour: un petit verre de rhum,” from Tristes Tropiques (1955)

On n’échappe pas au dilemme : ou bien l’ethnographe adhère aux normes de son groupe, et les autres ne peuvent lui inspirer qu’une curiosité passagère dont la réprobation n’est jamais absente; ou bien il est capable de se livrer totalement à elles, et son objectivité reste viciée du fait qu’en le voulant ou non, pour se donner à toutes les sociétés il s’est au moins refusé à une. Il commet donc le même péché qu’il reproche à ceux qui contestent le sense privilégié de sa vocation.

Now the questions arise:

  • Can institutions participate in citizen science? If so, how?

The possible answers here are that institutions can study citizen science, its mechanisms and motivations, they can create resources that enable and empower citizen scientists, and they can even collaborate with citizen scientists, though other caveats apply here especially with respect to sharing the rewards and recognition.

  • Is there a danger of institutions culturally appropriating citizen science by polishing it and adding to it artifacts from institutional science?

In my view, and so is the thesis of this paper, not only does this danger exist, it is already happening. Extremely well-funded, traditional science researchers are dressing up their work by calling it citizen science even though they clearly lack most all of the characteristics of a real citizen science project.

  • If citizen science eschews publication in a peer-reviewed journal, can institutions participate in citizen science and not publish thereby foregoing a chance to lend credence to their work in the only way they know how? AND if citizen scientists eschew the traditional scientific publication mechanism to communicate their work, how can they lend credibility to it in a manner analogous to the peer-review process?

Clearly, if the traditional academics get funded for and do what they call citizen science, they will need to publish it. It will be both necessary for their personal promotion, it will probably also be a requirement of their funding agency. But, we will need a mechanism whereby their citizen science collaborators who do not publish can permanently record their work and be referenced and cited.

  • Since citizen science falls outside the discourse of traditional science and its funding mechanisms, it is usually bootstrapped with self- or crowdsourced funds. How can citizen science benefit from the institutional science funding mechanisms that are available to the more traditional, institutional science?

This is a tremendously important topic that deserves very careful thought from all of us. Clearly public funds have to available to all public, and clearly, there is no mechanism right for doing so. Funding agencies all over the world seem to suffer from an inability to deal with individuals.


With this proposal, I want to initiate a conversation about the nature of citizen science, its main as well as neighboring actors, and its relationship with "traditional science," that is, all the science that is not citizen science. Three trends have both made citizen science more possible as well as more complicated:

  1. With the increase in the availability of open source tools (nodejs, Raspberry Pi, Arduino) and the advent of inexpensive sensors, the action has spilled over from the realm of only software to also hardware.
  2. The aforementioned advancements in sensors and DIY science also led to an increase in an overlap of both institutional and non-institutional science with medical and health concerns which further underscored the importance of security and privacy concerns driven by legal, cultural and ethical requirements.
  3. The intellectual property mechanisms that have developed to both protect and circumscribe traditional science and its products are fundamentally unsuitable to citizen science that is based on an ethos of sharing.

In the more traditional world, intellectual property protection starts from a position of no rights available to anyone but the creator, and then it opens up from there. In other words, it is closed by default with every opening being an easement on the enclosure. Science, as an intellectual inquiry into the working of our world and life, as a fount of knowledge, and especially as a primarily publicly funded activity, should, in my view, start from a position of open by default with any limitation of its use requiring justification based on legal, cultural, and ethical requirements.


I asked my colleagues at The Gnowledge Lab at HBCSE, Mumbai, and have reproduced some of the replies (with minimal curation).

MC Arunan:

Knowing this apparent internal contradiction is in itself disruptive (of the old established system) and hence emancipatory. Hence, for institutions initiating true citizen science, it is disruptive to them as well as emancipatory. The point … is whether we understand and initiate the process instrumentally or in all its vigor, knowing fully well that (the old structures will be demolished)

Arunan quoted the following couplet from a poem by the famous Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. There are a couple of different versions of the poems containing this couplet.

ऐ ख़ाक-नशीनों उठ बैठो वो वक़्त क़रीब आ पहुँचा है
जब तख़्त गिराए जाएँगे जब ताज उछाले जाएँगे

Vickram Crishna:

Similarly, I am sure that institutions, as well, are shocked when frameworks such as peer review are questioned or even tossed out. But do they need to be tossed out? Perhaps not.

In a perfectly working socially connected world, it would be trivial to invite specialists for peer review, all of them, rather than the nuanced approach currently in place, through the old boys’ network established within the traditional publishing environment. But we know that perfect socially connected world does not exist. Yet, and perhaps never.

Nagarjuna G aka GN:

There are some practical interests why some institutions want to do citizen science: to get more data that THEY need. So, they seek help from anyone to contribute. This is seeking ‘slavery’. This though people call it citizen science it is another form of taxing the citizens without involving them in doing science.

If institutions appropriate ‘citizen science’ they will undergo a major accommodation in the process leading to structural and functional changes. They can’t just appropriate without themselves changing in the process. At the same time the so called non-institutional citizen scientists cannot achieve anything without organizing themselves.

But institutional science is dependent on the institutions whose inertia and the instinct for self-preservation ensure that their motivations can likely be orthogonal to that of the citizens.2 In my view, institutional science can be an enabler of citizen science at best.

Perhaps the greatest promise of citizen science was showing that science could be done without the traditional infrastructure as well as the baggage of science. But ironically citizen science has become the mode du jour in academia. One could lament today against the appropriation of citizen science:

The institution was designed
to cleave the citizen from the science
Now watch the academics then
steal science away from citizens

parody, with due respect to the original The Goose and the Common song

So, what are the way in which citizens can engage in science? I propose the metaphors of Layers, Zones and Agency to understand the scope of [Citizen Engagement in Science]().

  1. Since 2006 I worked primarily from the pulpit of Creative Commons where I was first, a volunteer, then a Science Fellow, and finally a full-time employee as the global Manager of Science and Data Policy.
  2. Steve Kolowich. 2006. The Water Next Time: Professor Who Helped Expose Crisis in Flint Says Public Science Is Broken.