The importance of understanding motivation in Citizen Science projects

by | Jul 26, 2021

  Reading Time: 5 minutes

Understanding motivations is important because appealing to and fulfilling motivations helps Citizen Science projects recruit and retain participants. Motivations are defined as the subjective reasons people give for their behaviours. They vary between people, with different people carrying out the same role for different reasons. Paying attention to the range of motivations of potential participants is likely to increase the number of participants. Meeting their motivations is more likely to keep them involved in projects.

Many different studies have explored motivations, and we drew on theories from volunteering and Citizen Science. The most widely used model of motivations of volunteers takes a functional approach. This identifies six motivations: Values (expressing altruistic and humanitarian values), Career (to benefit one’s future career), Enhancement (to improve oneself), Understanding (to learn new things), Social (to meet new people and/or because volunteering is socially desirable), and Protective (to address personal problems or reducing negative feelings). Motivations can also be divided into intrinsic (inherently interesting, satisfying, or aligned to one’s values) or extrinsic (to obtain a goal or reward that is instrumental or external to oneself, such as respect). Other academics have divided motivations into Egoism, for the individual’s welfare, Altruism, to increase the welfare of others, Collectivism, to support a group, and Principlism, upholding personal principles. These are all shown in Figure 1. The Citizen Science literature has added to the list of potential motivations, for example, wanting to help science and a desire to share knowledge with others.



Figure 1. Literature summary on motivation

Motivations and demographics 

We were interested in how volunteer motivations vary by demographics. This is important because although many Citizen Science projects do not fully document who participates, studies which publish this information reveal that there is underrepresentation of many sectors of society, including people identifying as from minority ethnic groups. We are interested in how diversity of participants can be increased, because biases in participation affect projects’ results, democratisation of science efforts, and can reinforce existing injustices.

The volunteering literature shows that motivation varies with age, with Egoism motivations particularly important for younger people who may be volunteering to gain skills, whereas older people are more likely to hold Values motivations such as wanting to share their skills. Very few studies have looked at how motivations vary by demographic factors other than age.
We conducted a stratified sample of households across the UK, asking 8220 people if they had participated in environmental Citizen Science. 613 had and were then asked to select from a list of motivations derived from the literature. We used hierarchical cluster analysis, a statistical method, to identify groups of motivations that are commonly held together, and the characteristics of those who are most likely to hold them.

Two clusters were dominated by people holding “Values” motivations (concern for others or the environment), both of which had high proportions of older people and people identifying as from white ethnic groups. A third cluster included people with “Egoism” motivations (participating to learn something or further one’s career) and Values motivations. This cluster had a higher proportion of some commonly underrepresented groups than the overall sample, including younger people, people identifying as from minority ethnic groups and people in lower socioeconomic groups. Two further clusters also had higher proportions of people from minority ethnic groups than the overall sample, one dominated by those who participated because they were asked to, and the other by people who held other motivations not on the list.

Figure 2. Motivational clusters

Recommendations for planning Citizen Science projects 

We then used the literature on motivations to give recommendations to Citizen Science practitioners on how to recruit and retain Citizen Scientists, particularly those from underrepresented groups. Our topline recommendations are for Citizen Science projects to first consider the demographics of the participants that they would like to recruit, and to tailor recruitment methods and strategies to them. Second, to broaden the diversity of participants, design and distribute recruitment strategies and materials to appeal to a wide range of motivations. To improve retainment of volunteers, provide a range of rewards to participants to appeal to different motivation types, and finally, regularly ask participants about their motivations and consider modifying tasks or rewards to ensure that motivations continue to be met.

Further reading

This report is by Sarah West, Director & Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute at York, UK. It is based on an original paper written by Sarah and her colleagues Rachel Pateman and Alison Dyke, entitled Motivations of Environmental Citizen Scientists published recently in Citizen Science: Theory and Practice. You can access the full paper here (link to: https://bit.ly/3xLWVsa)


Photo by Dhaya Eddine Bentaleb on Unsplash


Audience: Academics | Organisational representative | Policy-maker
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