For centuries, people armed with curiosity and a bit of time have kept notes as they observed the world around them. Today, it’s easier than ever before for anyone to organize an exploration, measure what they find, and share their discoveries with a global community. What we now call citizen science encompasses a wide array of tools that let amateur and professional scientists alike collaborate to expand our scientific understanding. But at its heart, citizen science isn’t about the apps. It’s about tapping into your own inner scientist, the curious part of you that wants to dig into questions bigger than one person can solve on their own.
With all the attention citizen science is getting these days — in fields from astronomy to zoology — we were surprised at how few resources we could find for someone who wants to start sciencing or design a citizen science project. So, after a few rounds of discussion at Nerds for Nature events, we decided to write one. We are a group of self-taught adventurers, trained Ph.Ds, tinkerers, designers and jills-of-all-trades and we’ve drafted this manifesto based on what we’ve learned along the way. Offer your suggestions here or take these suggestions and make them your own. More good citizen science is a good thing.
BE A CITIZEN SCIENTIST
Be curious. It can be as simple as following a hunch or as basic as asking a question. You don’t need any special degree or experience to participate, just a curious spirit and an open mind. Citizen science and exploration is an organizing framework so we can learn faster, contribute more, and work together.
Observe carefully, report honestly. Everything you see, hear, feel is important. Observation is paramount. Keep a notebook, journal, blog, whatever and fill it up with your perspectives, both to hone your observational skills as well as to keep a record. Don’t worry about having a hypothesis or conclusion. That can come later.
Leave things as you found them. Make it easy for other people to enjoy a place after you do your research. Fill in holes and put back rocks, whether you’re in a city park or at the bottom of the sea.
Replicate — be the second or third or thousandth. Don’t chase being first — go deep and work longer, over time. One of the most important parts of science is that another scientist should be able to get the same results as you if they do the same thing. If someone has already tried an experiment, that’s all the more reason for you to try it again and see if you can get the same result. If you’re taking notes on the world around you, long-term data sets are some of the most valuable information we have. Volunteers started collecting weather observations in the United States as far back as 1776, in what would become the NOAA Cooperative Observer Program. Today, those data show us climate change.
Nothing is something. Make a note of what experiments fail and what you don’t find. Keep track of what’s not there. These “negative results” are important because they let you know tell when change happens — birds nesting where they never were before — and help other citizen scientists learn.
Be ethical with each other. Treat your fellow explorers with respect. Take time up front to talk with your fellow scientists about how you’ll communicate and make decisions, like who gets to use the ROV first. Good communication gives you more time for sciencing. Good ground rules are especially important if you’re going to do interviews or any research observing people, when you may need to keep data confidential.
Share. If you record a tree falling in a forest and don’t share the video, no one can learn from it or build on your results. Scan your notebooks for a blog, post to iNaturalist, share what you find and let other people add to it.
Know the rules. Most cities, states, and countries have some laws around this stuff, about privacy or protecting public resources. Many Parks may allow you to take photos but not samples. If you have a lead scientist/project leader, make them tell you what the rules are up front. If you’re on your own, check online or with a local group or agency. And if you think the rules are too strict, work to change them.
DESIGN A CITIZEN SCIENCE PROJECT
Be a responsible guide. Tell participants how much time you’d like them to invest and how their data will be used. Is this a one-off project or something you need people to do every year? Do you need a certain number of people for it to work? Make sure volunteers have a sense of where you’re going and how long it will take to get there. Once the event is over, send out progress reports. You should also take change of knowing the rules and securing any permits or contracts. Take some tips from the folks who manage volunteers as a full-time job.
Have a clear data sharing policy. Will the volunteers get to keep any data they collect? Will you aggregate the data and share just the summary? Citizen scientists want to see their results; you need to determine how to do this transparently and ethically. This is especially true if you’re collecting information from volunteers’ own digital devices where you could be gathering their personal metadata.
Keep an eye on the boundary between observing and enforcing. If there’s a chance a company or property owner could be fined or prosecuted based on your results, make sure you know your rights and protect your collaborators. Aggregate data to keep people anonymous. Clearly define research and advocacy roles for you and your volunteers. Check out groups that do advocacy-oriented citizen science for for guidance, like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
Balance fun and science. There’s tons of talk about maximizing your data quality but remember that citizen scientists are out doing science in their free time. They’re participating because they’re excited about the birds or the telescopes, because they have information to share, and because you have a project that really engages them. Make time for your group to socialize and play around, and maybe include a competitive element. These activities may not optimize data gathering, but sometimes great scientific discoveries can happen by accident.
Be welcoming. Having a variety of perspectives will lend credibility to the results. Citizen science is inherently about including more voices in science, so make sure your group reflects that. Flyer the neighborhood, reach out to schools, or give a talk at a local library. Maybe you got into science because of a chance encounter with someone who was passionate about the world. Give that chance to someone else.