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Authors: Cerrato S., Balli E.

Cerrato S., Balli E. (2024), The Step Change Navigator, ECSA, Berlin


Key trends in citizen science initiative from Step Change

This section delves into the key trends in citizen science initiatives, drawing insights from the Step Change project. It emphasises the importance of responsible and ethical practices in citizen science.

Guiding principles

The evaluation of the Step Change initiatives employed a framework based on the 10 Principles of Ci- tizen Science: these principles serve as fundamental guidelines for designing, implementing, and eva- luating citizen science projects effectively.

In addition to the 10 Principles of Citizen Science, the five Step Change initiatives were evaluated ba- sed on three dimensions, within the Evaluation work package for which the Knowledge&Innovation partner is responsible.

  1. Scientific dimension: this dimension focused on the scientific merit and innovation within the initiatives.
  2. Citizen science process: this dimension examined the participatory processes employed throughout the various stages of the initiatives.
  3. Social-ecological and economic dimension: this dimension considered the broader societal impacts of the initiatives, with a particular focus on the specific social sector each initiative addressed.

By analysing the Step Change initiatives through this framework, the project team was able to establish a valuable matrix. This matrix serves as a navigational tool for understanding current trends in citizen science and planning future initiatives effectively.The evaluation of the Step Change citizen science initiatives has provided valuable insights into the potential of citizen science to address societal challenges. The evaluation has also identified some of the challenges that need to be addressed to ensure that citizen science is conducted in a responsible and ethical manner.

The findings of the evaluation can be used to inform the development of future citizen science initiatives and will also be used to raise awareness of the potential of citizen science among policymakers, scientists, and the public.

Framing the findings

To facilitate comprehension and application, the key findings will be presented in relation to the 10 Principles of Citizen Science.

Principle 1. Citizen science projects actively involve citizens in scientific endea- vour that generates new knowledge or understanding. Citizens may act as contributors, collaborators, or as project leader and have a meaningful role in the project.

1.a Defining citizens’ roles based on their skills and knowledge

Citizen science flourishes on collaboration, but to truly thrive, it’s crucial to ensure citizens undertake roles aligned with their unique skills and knowledge. This requires careful navigation from the very beginning:

Firstly, during the design stage, it’s vital to delineate the knowledge and skills citizen scientists can bring to the project. This involves understanding their strengths and expertise, and recognizing the added value they contribute to the research endeavour.

Next comes aligning project activities with the realistic capabilities of various stakeholders. This ensures everyone feels valued and engaged by having activities that match their skill sets. By differentiating activities to leverage the diverse knowledge and skills of citizen scientists, we unlock their full potential and maximise their contributions.

Finally, to equip participants for success, training programs should be specifically tailored to the roles citizens and stakeholders will play. These programs should be action-oriented, focusing on providing the practical skills needed to effectively contribute to the project in their designated roles.

By meticulously considering these factors, we can ensure citizen science projects create a collaborative environment where everyone feels valued, their strengths are harnessed, and their contributions meaningfully contribute to the project’s shared goals.

1.b Engaging intermediary organisations

Intermediary organisations play a crucial role in citizen science as they act as bridges between various social actors. Notably, they excel at promoting the involvement of individuals and actors within the lo- cal community. This translates to valuable support in recruiting citizen scientists and facilitating project activities. However, it’s important to remember that not all intermediary organisations possess the same level of effectiveness in mobilising participants. Therefore, it’s vital to assess their mobilisation capacity on a case-by-case basis to ensure successful collaboration within the citizen science project.

1.c Adapting the project timing

Unlike traditional research projects, citizen science initiatives often require a more flexible and open-en- ded approach to planning. Engaging citizens and stakeholders effectively can be a time-consuming process, and the effort required can be challenging to predict in advance. This flexibility may contradict the established planning methods of conventional research. To navigate this difference, the project team needs to embrace a more adaptable mindset. This means being prepared to:

  • Adjust timelines and project plans: Allow for adjustments as needed to accommodate the engagement process and ensure effective collaboration with citizen scientists.
  • Redefine project aspects: Be open to revisiting and potentially redefining certain aspects of the ori- ginal project if necessary. This ensures the project remains aligned with the evolving engagement process and maximises its potential for success.

1.d Involving qualified citizens and stakeholders

Recruiting citizen scientists is often the most nuanced and resource-intensive step in a citizen science project. It requires a dedicated action plan that meticulously considers several crucial aspects:

  • Motivation and Incentives: understanding what drives individuals to participate and offering relevant incentives are essential for fostering engagement.
  • Organisation and scheduling: convenient participation times, clear instructions, and a well-organised experience are key to minimising barriers to involvement.
  • Training: Providing necessary training equips citizen scientists with the knowledge and skills to effectively contribute to the project.

However, citizen science goes beyond simple citizen engagement. It thrives on the epistemic value of participants, meaning it seeks individuals with specific knowledge, skills, or direct experience relevant to the research topic. These “qualified citizens,” who may not be professional scientists, can offer unique perspectives and expertise, potentially addressing knowledge gaps that traditional research methods might miss.

Therefore, it’s crucial to move beyond the concept of “ordinary citizens” and recognize that everyone has the potential to contribute meaningfully to scientific research, depending on the specific research topic and their unique qualifications.

1.e Engaging technical partners

In citizen science projects, collaboration with technical partners proves crucial, as they bridge the know- ledge gap between professional researchers and citizen scientists. These partners offer invaluable expertise in various areas.

Technical equipment: they can provide access to specialised equipment or resources essential for the project, filling gaps in what researchers or citizen scientists might individually possess.

Citizen scientist recruitment: their networks and expertise can be leveraged to identify and recruit indivi- duals with relevant skills and knowledge, enriching the citizen science participant pool.

Data processing and interpretation: their technical knowledge allows them to handle, analyse, and in- terpret the data collected from citizen science activities, ensuring its proper utilisation.

Exploiting results: they can explore and contribute to potential avenues for utilising the research findin- gs, maximising their impact and potential for societal benefit.

By establishing these partnerships, citizen science projects gain access to a wider range of expertise and resources, fostering a more robust and impactful research endeavour.

1.f Keeping citizen scientists engaged: organising a rewarding journey

Citizen science thrives on the collective effort of passionate individuals. To keep them engaged throughout the project, it’s crucial to understand and nurture their motivations. Here’s some ideas on how to achieve it.

Acknowledge diverse motivations: recognize that people participate for various reasons, from personal growth and skill development to a desire to contribute to meaningful scientific discovery. By understanding these motivations, project organisers can tailor the experience to better meet individual needs.

Fueling the fire of learning: provide opportunities for citizen scientists to continuously acquire new know- ledge and gain new experiences. This can be achieved through workshops, training sessions, or even incorporating learning modules into project activities. Equipping them with relevant skills empowers them to contribute more effectively and fosters a sense of accomplishment.

Meaningful contributions, lasting satisfaction: structure the project to ensure citizen scientists feel their contributions are valued and have a real impact. This can involve providing regular feedback, highlighting their contributions in project publications, or even inviting them to participate in data analysis discussions. By fostering a sense of accomplishment, you keep them engaged and motivated throughout the scientific journey.

By prioritising these aspects, citizen science projects can cultivate a rewarding and enriching experience for participants, ultimately leading to a more successful and impactful research endeavour.

Principle 5. Citizen scientists receive feedback from the project. For example, how their data are being used and what the research, policy or societal outcomes are.

Principle 8. Citizen scientists are acknowledged in project results and publications.

5 and 8.a Define effective feedback tools

Citizen science projects weave together a rich tapestry of individuals – a vibrant mix of backgrounds, interests, expectations, and commitment levels. This diversity, while fostering innovation and collective knowledge, can also present challenges. Here’s where feedback loops emerge as a powerful tool for navigating these complexities.

Bridging the gap: Feedback loops create a continuous communication channel, keeping all actors – from citizen scientists to researchers – informed and engaged. This fosters a sense of community and shared purpose, despite differing perspectives or commitment levels.

Early warning system: By providing a platform for open communication, feedback loops allow for the prompt detection of potential tensions. This proactive approach allows for early intervention and conflict resolution, preventing issues from escalating and derailing the project.

Empowering participation: feedback loops go beyond simply informing; they empower participation. They offer a platform for citizen scientists to voice their concerns, suggest improvements, and even contribute to the research process itself. This fosters a sense of ownership and shared responsibility for the project’s success.

The importance of feedback loops becomes even more pronounced with larger and more diverse project teams. By fostering open communication and collaboration, these loops ensure that everyone feels valued and has a voice, ultimately leading to a more cohesive and successful citizen science initiative.

5 and 8.b Maintaining a long-term perspective on citizen science

Introducing citizen science elements into the academy or into an established system, requires structu- ral changes in the institutions involved, such as the creation of new operational units, the diffusion of specific skills, or the introduction of new procedures. In many cases, citizen science can only have a significant impact in a long-term perspective that allows these structural changes to take place.

It’s important to recognize that these structural changes often require patience and a long-term perspective. Achieving significant impact through citizen science necessitates fostering a culture of collaboration and a willingness to adapt within the established system. Patience and persistence are key to navigating this transformative journey.

By understanding the need for structural changes and committing to a long-term approach, institutions can pave the way for the successful integration of citizen science, ultimately fostering deeper engagement and reaping the benefits this collaborative approach offers to research and society as a whole.

5 and 8.c Developing multiple tools to recognise the citizen scientists’ contribution

Citizen science is widely discussed in the literature. However, there is a tendency to focus on their recogni- tion in scientific publications produced by professional researchers, yet different types of recognition can be used. Citizen scientists can be, for example, encouraged to independently write an article about their rese- arch experience, and participate as speakers at events. In addition, their opinions and observations must be taken seriously by the research staff, and they need to always receive feedback on their contributions.

Principle 3. Both the professional scientists and the citizen scientists benefit from taking part. Benefits may include the publication of research outputs, learning opportunities, personal enjoyment, social benefits, satisfaction through contributing to scientific evidence e.g. to address local, national and international issues, and through that, the potential to influence policy.

3.a Managing the interactions among citizens and stakeholders

Interactions between citizens and stakeholders should be carefully managed to avoid negative syner- gies or dominant voices.

3.b Exploring the tech terrain in citizen science

As we navigate the citizen science landscape, exploring the potential of new technologies emerges as a powerful tool for fostering social innovation. These technologies can serve as valuable allies, paving the way for:

Mass data collection: citizen science projects often rely on specialised applications that empower individuals to contribute significantly to data collection efforts. This allows for the gathering of vast amounts of data that would be impossible to acquire through traditional methods alone. This collective effort expands the scope and reach of research, leading to richer and more comprehensive datasets. However, venturing into the technological realm also necessitates acknowledging the potential need for social innovation. Here are some key considerations:

Bridging the digital divide: unequal access to technology and digital literacy can create barriers to participation, potentially excluding certain segments of the population. Navigating this challenge requires innovative approaches, such as developing alternative participation methods or providing digital literacy training, to ensure inclusivity and equitable access.

Data privacy and security: as data collection scales, robust measures must be implemented to pro- tect the privacy and security of citizen scientists’ data. This necessitates transparency in data collection practices, informed consent mechanisms, and secure data storage and management protocols.

Ensuring responsible use of technology: the integration of technology should be guided by ethi- cal principles and responsible use considerations. This includes ensuring citizen scientists understand how their data will be used, fostering responsible data collection practices, and safeguarding against potential misuse of technology or data.

By thoughtfully navigating these considerations and harnessing the potential of technology, citizen science projects can leverage social innovation to overcome these challenges and unlock the full potential of citizen science for scientific advancement and positive societal impact.

3.c Strengthening stakeholder interest in science as a tool for change

Citizen science is based on two acts of recognition. On the one hand, scientists must recognise the importance of the knowledge and opinions of non-scientists in achieving scientific results. On the other hand, stakeholders must recognise the importance of scientific knowledge in addressing the complex problems they face. This means encouraging both researchers to adopt citizen science practices and principles and stakeholders to learn about and contribute to scientific practices. It is recommended to promote the idea that participation in scientific research can be a powerful tool for social change, especially through educational interventions in schools and through information and awareness-raising activities aimed at different stakeholders.

By fostering this two-way dialogue and empowering stakeholders, citizen science can become a power- ful catalyst for bringing people together and harnessing collective knowledge to address complex socie- tal challenges and drive positive change.

3.d Defining a strategy for building the core team

In citizen science projects, the composition of the team should follow a precise strategy, taking into account the context and the relevant variables. These may include, for example, the type of promoter and its strengths and weaknesses, the skills and knowledge needed to carry out the project, the degree of citizen and stakeholder involvement required (and hence the relevance of skills such as mobilisation and communication) in the core team, and of course the content and characteristics of the project.

Principle 2. Citizen science projects have a genuine science outcome. For example, answering a research question or informing conservation action, management decisions or environmental policy.

2.a Tailoring citizen science initiatives to the social and economic context

There is a tendency to view citizen and stakeholder participation in research as largely detached from the social context in which the research is funded. It is important to vary the nature of the approach to citizen science according to the socio-economic context. The methods of recruitment, training, communication, and involvement must be different from place to place.

Principle 4. Citizen scientists may, if they wish, participate in multiple stages of the scientific process. This may include developing the research question, designing the method, gathering and analysing data, and communicating the results.

4.a Using boundary concepts

Citizen science projects can be more easily realised if interpretative concepts are adopted acting as ‘boundary objects’, i.e. concepts that are immediately understandable by experts, researchers, stakeholders, and citizen scientists and that serve as drivers for the research process. These concepts facilitate cooperation, make the objectives to be pursued clearer and can motivate the actors involved, albeit in different ways.

Principle 6. Citizen science is considered a research approach like any other, with limitations and biases that should be considered and controlled for. However unlike traditional research approaches, citizen science provides opportunity for greater public engagement and democratisation of science.

6.a Favouring interdisciplinarity

Citizen science is based on combining different types of knowledge (scientific, experiential, political, social, and knowledge) to produce new scientific knowledge. This combination is greatly facilitated by an interdisciplinary approach that brings together both STEM and SSH knowledge. Including social researchers brings great benefits and helps to better define the involvement strategies and interpret the input coming from citizens and stakeholders.

Principle 7. Citizen science project data and meta-data are made publicly available and where possible, results are published in an open access format.

7.a Adopting strong data quality verification tools

The involvement of citizen scientists requires systems for verifying the quality of the data produced that should be more stringent and continuous than those normally used in conventional research. Despite the training they may receive, citizen scientists’ capacity to collect data can never be the same as that of professional scientists.

7.b Ensuring the use of reliable research quality control tools

The involvement of many social and political actors in research risks turning citizen science projects into a kind of negotiation over facts and their interpretation. This risk increases when there is a potential conflict between the actors involved. To avoid this risk, the results of citizen science projects must the- refore meet the quality standards of any scientific product, so that the involvement of social actors does not run the risk of bending the research results to suit interests. Various tools and procedures must be implemented to ensure that all the data collected (both those obtained through technological tools and those collected by citizen scientists) were scientifically reliable and comparable with those obtained through conventional research tools.

Principle 9. Citizen science programmes are evaluated for their scientific output, data quality, participant experience and wider societal or policy impact.

Principle 10. The leaders of citizen science projects take into consideration legal and ethical issues surrounding copyright, intellectual property, data sharing agreements, confidentiality, attribution, and the environmental impact of any activities.

9 and 10.a Allowing time for impacts to emerge

The timing of research is more controllable than the timing of social, environmental, or political impacts. When designing citizen science projects, especially those with clear change objectives, it is necessary to allow sufficient time, for example, for the dissemination of project results and the involvement of po- litical and social actors, so that these results can be used effectively. If the time planned to achieve the expected impacts is too short, the risk is that activities to fully exploit the research products for change will have to be slowed down or interrupted after the project period.

Charting a course: the crucial role of communication in citizen science

While the 10 Principles of Citizen Science lay a solid foundation, communication and dissemination re- main an often-underestimated aspect, fraught with challenges and risks arising from insufficient resour- ces (both human expertise and funding). Navigating these challenges requires a strategic approach to communication, ensuring it becomes a seamless journey throughout the entire citizen science voyage, not just a final destination.

Diversifying and adapting your communication approach

Unlike traditional research where communication often occurs at the project’s end, citizen science demands a multifaceted and adaptable communication strategy throughout all stages.
This includes:

Identifying research questions: engaging diverse stakeholders and the public can spark valuable insi- ghts and shape research questions relevant to the community.

Designing the project: effective communication fosters collaboration and ensures all involved under- stand the project’s goals and methodologies.

Implementing the project: clear and consistent communication keeps participants informed, engaged, and motivated throughout the research process.

Interpreting and analysing data: collaborative interpretation allows diverse perspectives to inform the analysis and ensures results are well-understood by all stakeholders.

Exploiting and disseminating findings: effective communication ensures research findings reach rele- vant audiences, maximising their impact and potential for change.

Securing the necessary provisions for a smooth voyage

Establishing a dedicated budget for communication and awareness-raising activities is crucial. This investment allows for:

Engaging with diverse audiences: utilise a variety of communication channels and resources to reach individuals with essential knowledge and perspectives relevant to the research topic.

Optimising data collection and usage: effective communication empowers citizen scientists to contribu- te meaningfully and ensures collected data are used effectively.

Maximising project impact: by effectively communicating findings and engaging stakeholders, citizen science projects can have a significant and lasting impact on society.

Navigating the seas of collaboration

Managing relationships between social actors (stakeholders and citizens) is vital in citizen science, as interactions can be complex and multifaceted. Potential challenges include:

Divergent viewpoints: stakeholders and citizens may hold differing perspectives on the project’s purpose, objectives, or management of research results.

Collaboration conflicts: disagreements or conflicts can arise during project implementation, requiring effective communication and conflict resolution strategies.

To navigate these challenges, project organisers must develop a clear picture of stakeholder relation- ships – understand the roles, interests, and potential points of conflict between various stakeholders – and strategize engagement and determine who to involve, how to involve them, and how to facilitate productive communication and collaboration.

Maintaining a strong public image

The public image of the promoting institution significantly influences citizen engagement. A strong reputation fosters trust and increases the likelihood of individuals participating in the project.

  • Be mindful of your public image: recognize the role of your institution’s reputation in attracting citizen scientists and actively manage this image to inspire trust and participation.
  • Integrate trust-building strategies: design your project with the importance of trust in mind, em- ploying communication strategies that foster transparency, openness, and accountability.
  • By prioritising and effectively managing communication throughout the citizen science journey, you can ensure smooth sailing, fostering collaboration, maximising impact, and ultimately achieving the transformative potential of citizen science.
User Type
  • Citizen scientist/civil society organization
  • Researcher/research institution
Resource type
  • Projects/project examples
Research Field