What is citizen science, and do we need to define it?

  Reading Time: 5 minutes
There is no consensus about what citizen science exactly means even among researchers who are highly specialised on the topic. Also research funders and policy makers use it differently: sometimes quite differently: […] no central authority or governing body oversees the field, and even agreeing about who counts as a citizen scientist is challenging. (Rasmussen and Cooper, 2019, p. 1) But not only is there a broad consensus that the term is fuzzy. There is not even consensus as to whether it should be defined at all.

The term ‘Citizen Science’ has had a remarkable career in terms of scientific publications and funding schemes. Citizen science policies are either already developed or under development in many parts of the world. However the question of definition is one that still garners considerable attention amongst those interested and involved in Citizen Science including the research team responsible for the recently published CS Track report, the Framework Conceptual Model. The lead authors, Christine Urban and Michael  Strähle from the Wissenschaftsladen Wien – Science Shop Vienna argue that this question of definition goes beyond simple definition and relates to questions like What do those who are active in citizen science contexts expect to gain from it? and Who expects what challenges citizen science to solve? 

Citizen science is gaining more attention and support, however the term itself and what it involves remains a matter of debate

In this new CS Track report, the team points out that in spite of its extensive use and the many promised benefits for society, even highly specialised scholars are far from agreeing what Citizen Science exactly means. The only broad consensus that has been reached is that the term is indistinct. There is also no consensus as to whether this state of affairs is even a disadvantage and whether an agreed terminology is desirable or not remains contested. This is particularly remarkable in view of the many benefits for science and society that are postulated for a high variety of conceptualizations that are partially incompatible. Those who argue against rigid definitions, see a risk of excluding activities and narrowing down the diversity of Citizen Science, (Heigl et al., 2019a; Auerbach et al., 2019; Heigl et al., 2019b). 

But how can one talk about citizen science, let alone investigate the phenomenon in its different manifestations and assess the many promised benefits for science and society without having a clear common understanding of what it means? 

Among those who are firmly advocating for taking steps towards developing a binding international definition are Florian Heigl, Barbara Kieslinger and Daniel Dörler which they see as necessary for the development of standards for citizen science. They bring the still unsatisfying situation to the point: 

But what exactly qualifies as citizen science? It is interpreted in various ways (1) and takes different forms with different degrees of participation (2). In fact, the label citizen science is currently assigned to research activities either by project principal investigators (PIs) themselves or by research funding agencies. (Heigl et al., 2018, 8089) 

One could add that it is also other scholars who sometimes assign the term rather arbitrarily, because of the aforementioned lack of clear definitions. 

In spite of intensified discussions as the term ‘Citizen Science’ is used more and more often, the challenge to find clear definitions remains, as even the most recent literature shows: In 2021, Vohland et al. still ask the question “What is citizen Science?” and describe it as broadly referring to “active engagement of the  general public in scientific research tasks.” (Vohland et al, 2021, p. 1). But, even this very general and inclusive definition excludes some activities which are presently recognised as citizen science: citizens’ deliberation on research policies would not belong to “research tasks”. Also, when individual citizens or NGOs request information or more research on a certain question, they may trigger research without further engagement.

The umbrella label ‘Citizen Science’ frequently also includes innovation and development happening in fab labs or maker spaces, but these are usually not called research tasks either

This means that, adapting the above sentence, in the broadest sense one could say that ‘Citizen Science’ is currently a rather undefined term that refers to the active (or passive) engagement of the general public in activities that are in some respect related to science and/or innovation, excluding those members of the public who are (substantially) paid for it.

This Briefing Report is based on the CS Track Public Deliverable 1.1 entitled Framework Conceptual Model edited by Michael Strähle &Christine Urban

For more information

To learn more about citizen science read the full report entitled “Framework Conceptual Model” here.


Photo by Alexander Suhorucov on Pexels.

Audience: Academics | Citizen Scientist | Company representative | Educators | Organisational representative | Policy-maker
Categories: Beta Report


Read more like this article

Help us disseminate our research results

Be the first to receive updates about CS Track project results, opinion pieces and News&Events related to Citizen Science.

Email Address
Twitter Account

Subscribe to our newsletter

Why we ask for profiles?

We ask for your profile for research purposes only. Filling in your profile does not imply to filtering the content you will receive.

I do not know which is my profile
  1. Policy-maker: Regional, national or international policy-maker or influencer.
  2. Academic: Academic engaged in research related to Citizen Science.
  3. Citizen Scientist: Citizen Scientist involved in or managing/planning one or more Citizen Science project.
  4. Organisational representative: member of a civil society organisation or NGO supporting Citizen Science (including science centres and musea, CS clubs and platforms etc.).
  5. Company representative: company employee supporting and/or funding Citizen Science projects or activities.
  6. Educator: Educator interested in supporting and promoting Citizen Science in an educational setting.
  7. Other.