Citizen Science, the public contribution to science

Thursday, 18 July 2013 in Science by Astrid Pellieux

For years, amateur scientists have greatly contributed to the growth of science by measuring, collecting, and sharing raw and/or processed data with the scientific community. This involvement of the public is called ″citizen science″. The advent of technology provides more opportunities for citizens to involve themselves in this process, but also more ways for scientists to mobilize them. Websites, mobile applications, and serious games are good examples of tools used in the digital age for the public participation in science.

Well spreaded through natural science and astronomy, the citizen science is not new. It refers to the public collaboration with the scientific community. Citizens involved come from diverse background. Some are former scientists and science students, but many others are people with no connections to science.

First and foremost, it corresponds to citizens gathering data that will be analyzed by scientists later. For instance, since 1900, the Christmas Bird Count run by the National Audubon Society is a program which aims to assess the health of winter bird populations of the Western Hemisphere. For astronomy, the International Observe the Moon Night (InOMN) event is a good example of citizen science where people from around the world can observe and study the moon. With the development of the digital age, many new tools are available to help public involved in citizen science projects. It’s notably the case of mobile apps. For example, Meteor Counter is an iPhone/iPad/iPod touch app designed by NASA researchers to allow citizens to gather data on meteors. Another example in the life science is the WildLab Bird app for iPhone/iPad/iPod touch that help amateur scientists to gather bird data.


Secondly, with the advance of technology in Science, massive datasets are more and more produced during a scientific research. The public contribution allows scientists to achieve the data management even faster. In this case, citizens will process data online with no more needed equipment or field observations. The Citizen Science Alliance (CSA) is dedicated to internet-based citizen science projects. The organization brought together actors in this field to engage researchers and citizens into collaboration. Each of its projects can be found on the Zooniverse platform. For example, Galaxy Zoo is one of the most popular Zooniverse projects launched in July 2007. The aim of this project is for citizens to classify hundreds of thousands of galaxy images to understand how galaxies form. Another example of a Zooniverse project is Cell Slider. In collaboration with Cancer Research UK, the purpose of this project is to provide citizens real life cancer images. By classifying these data, citizens help scientists cure cancers.

Moreover, citizens can also help scientists manage data through the use of serious games. They correspond to games which final purpose is to solve a scientific problem. Foldit is a popular example of a serious game. By solving puzzles, citizens contribute to the prediction and discovery of protein’s structures. Another example is the Phylo game which purpose is for citizens to determine Multiple Sequence Alignments allowing scientists to find the source of some genetic diseases.


Other citizen science projects don’t require a great involvement of the public. In fact, distributed computing projects take advantage of idle times on computers to process data that require massive amounts of computing resource. It’s notably the case of the Einstein@home project which aim is to find evidences of the gravitational waves imagined by Einstein.

To conclude, citizen science plays a great role in scientific research. The movement greatly develops with the advance of technologies, and is more approved and needed by scientists. As a consequence, web platforms dedicated to the promotion of citizen science emerge such as Scistarter, an index of existing citizen science projects, or the CitizenSci blog, one of the PLOS Blogs Network.