The Importance of Citizen Science

By Annika Peterson

When you picture scientific research, images of scientists in lab coats, bubbling beakers and high-tech lab equipment may come to mind. However, researchers are now conducting investigations using some methods you may not expect. While scientific discovery takes place every day all over the world at universities and other research institutions, it could also be happening in your own neighborhood in the form of citizen science.

In recent years, researchers have begun to utilize a previously overlooked resource: the energy and creativity of people who do not necessarily have an education in science. Citizen science is defined as public participation in scientific research. The public partners with professional scientists to collect, understand, or analyze data [1]. The energy of people who want to participate in a scientific project is a valuable resource that can be used in a variety of ways. People walking their dog or kids in a neighborhood park can quantify organisms from butterflies to birds to insects that they see to help research urban ecology [2]. Citizens can monitor weather and other natural phenomena to add data to climate and weather analysis [3]. With the advent of technology to more easily connect scientists to a willing public, investigators can crowd source data analysis tasks that may otherwise have been challenging to complete. For example, an online game called Foldit challenges people to fold proteins into chemically stable configurations [3]. Solutions invented by people from diverse backgrounds can help scientists to solve real world problems.

These projects can benefit both professional scientists and the public. Researchers are able to gain more energy, creativity, and data from a wide variety of people. A project called Galaxy Zoo in 2007 used the public to classify images from the Hubble Space Telescope and resulted in more than 150,000 people classified 50 million images [1]. This task would have been insurmountable for scientists without citizen science. The members of the public who participated probably learned something new or gained a greater appreciation for incredible advances taking place in space research. However, in a study that looked into the influence of citizen science on the public, only small changes in participants’ academic knowledge, understanding of the scientific process, or appreciation of research were observed [1]. This may be because the people who choose to participate in these projects already have a working understanding of scientific topics. As technologies develop that can connect everyday people with scientists, projects like this will gain popularity. With a wider reach, citizen science could potentially have a significant benefit on participants’ scientific intelligence.  Citizen science could bring science to those who do not have experience in the field.  It might inspire kids to pursue science or help people understand more about the natural world.

Citizen science is an incredible new way of advancing scientific research and is growing around the world. These projects engage the public in scientific processes that would otherwise would be inaccessible to them. By participating in citizen science, people may also gain an appreciation for the importance of innovation and scientific curiosity in our society.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, several professors are using citizen science to add to their research. In the Botany Department, professor and scientist Catherine Woodward is helping to develop an app that will help people identify Wisconsin plant life. As well as facilitating learning about Wisconsin botany, the app will also assist the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Users can submit their data, which will tag sightings of invasive or endangered plants around the state [4]. Another example of getting non-scientists involved in important ecological research is the Urban Canid Project. Professor David Drake studies coyotes and red foxes. He hopes to understand their habitats and behaviors in urban Madison [5]. Citizens take part in the research by reporting sightings of the animals throughout the Madison area as well as helping to capture and tag animals with radio collars to track their location [6]. The project teaches Madison residents to not be concerned about these new urban inhabitants. Both of these projects investigate Wisconsin ecology and help the public learn about and participate in science.

Citizen science is a growing tool that allows researchers to use the skills of non-professional scientists and teach about their area of study. It is increasingly important for scientists reach out to the public: through engaging people from all backgrounds, the importance of scientific reasoning and research will be brought further into the public eye. By engaging communities through citizen science, bird watchers, space aficionados, and other creative minds will add to the world of scientific inquiry.


  1. Bonney R, Phillipis, TB, Ballard HL, Enck JW. Can citizen science enhance public understanding of science? PLoS One. 2016; 9:1–23
  2. Wei JW, Lee BPYH, Wen LB, Citizen science and the urban ecology of birds and butterflies – A systematic review. PLoS One. 2016; 11: 1–23
  3. Nov O, Arazy O, Anderson D. Scientists@Home: What drives the quantity and quality of online citizen science participation? PLoS One. 2014; 9: 1–11
  4. Mason Muerhoff. Gotta Catch ‘Em All: UW researchers developing plant identification app. UWMadScience. 11 Oct 2017. Available from: Cited 13 Feb 2018.
  5. Mueller MA, Drake D, Allen, ML. Coexistence of coyotes (Canis latrans) and red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) in an urban landscape. PLos One. 2018; 13
  6. Kelly April Tyrrell. Urban Canid Project helps track Madison’s coyotes and prevent conflicts. UW News. 6 Jan 2016. Available from Cited 13 Feb 2018.

This piece was featured in Volume III Issue II of JUST. Click here to read more of this issue.

2018-05-06T22:39:33+00:00 May 6th, 2018|