Blog Post

Citizen Science Terminology Matters: Journal Article Explores Key Terms

Guest post by MV Eitzel, an NSF postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Santa Cruz with the Science and Justice Research Center and The Muonde Trust’s community-based research team in rural Zimbabwe.

Much can be at stake depending on the choice of words used to describe citizen science, because terminology impacts how knowledge is developed and how we relate to each other. Citizen science is a quickly evolving field that is mobilizing people’s involvement in information development, social action and justice, and large-scale information gathering. Currently, a wide variety of terms and expressions are being used to refer to the concept of citizen science and its practitioners. On Cornell’s ‘citsci-discussion’ email list, a conversation erupted last July (2016) about what to call people who lead and people who participate in citizen science projects.  Some of us took the discussion offline and used Google Docs to collect and consider a wide variety of terms as well as larger questions about what citizen science is.

A year later (July 2017), 23 of us from 11 countries published a Review and Synthesis paper in Citizen Science: Theory and Practice in which we summarized our collection of terms. We gave context to terminology in citizen science, from theoretical, historical, geopolitical, and disciplinary angles. We discussed what citizen science is and reviewed related terms, including community-based participatory research and crowdsourcing.  And finally, we provided a collection of potential terms and definitions for ‘citizen science’ and people participating in citizen science projects.

Our collection of terms was generated primarily from our own broad knowledge base and on-the-ground experience.  We hoped to spark discussion by recognizing the potential issues associated with various terms. While our examples may not be systematic or exhaustive, they were intended to be suggestive and invitational of future consideration. In our collective experience with citizen science projects, no single term was appropriate for all contexts. In addition, through our conversations about the paper, our differing approaches to and motivations for involvement with citizen science emerged as important aspects of our experiences with terminology.
We welcome discussion on how to allow for plurality in terminology while maintaining shared coherent practice (and the benefits that result from a community of shared practice).  In a given citizen science project, we suggest that terms should be chosen carefully and their usage explained.  We also suggest that project leaders directly communicate with participants about how terminology affects them and what they would prefer to be called. Several presentations at the recent CitSci2017 conference in St. Paul, MN addressed questions of how terminology choice affects participant perceptions and behaviors. We recommend further study of terminology trends and impacts in citizen science along those lines. Terminology is important and we know many people in the citizen science community have a lot to say about it — we welcome the opportunity for further conversations. Please share your thoughts in the comments section (scroll to the bottom) of the article on the Citizen Science: Theory & Practice webpage.
The article, in Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, is available here:

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