Blog Post

One Association, many terms

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Blog post by Eva Lewandowski, CSA Board Member

Citizen science. Community science. Volunteer monitoring. Public participation in scientific research. Crowdsourcing. The list goes on and on. There are so many terms for the involvement of non-professional members of the public in scientific research, and it seems like new terms are emerging every day. It can be hard to keep up and hard to know what term is the correct one to use.

The truth is there is no single, unanimously agreed upon correct term for the work that we do in our field. We use different labels based on topics of study, geographic area, stakeholder preference, and personal opinions. In many cases, an individual term can mean something different depending on who is using it. What I call citizen science might not mean citizen science to you. What you call crowdsourced science might not mean crowdsourced science to me.

We know that words have power. That’s why as a community the conversation about what to call our work arises again and again.  Is “citizen” a word that encompasses and embraces all non-professionals or is it exclusionary and isolating? Does “community science” mean science created and led by a local community in order to meet the needs of that community, or can it embody a wider range of activities, including those created and led by large universities or national organizations to meet their own goals? Is “volunteer” a respectful way to refer to someone doing work for a project without pay, or does it imply a power imbalance? Questions like these are debated across the field; from discussions on the listserv to deliberations at conferences to lecture slides defining your terms at the beginning of a talk, we keep coming back to terminology.  

A few years ago, a dynamic conversation on the CSA listserv led to the publication of a review paper on citizen science terminology (Eitzel et. al 2017) in the CSA’s journal, Citizen Science: Theory and Practice. With more than 20 authors from across the globe and numerous others involved in the initial discussion, this is a paper created by the community for the community, and it remains an excellent resource for all of us. Since its publication, use of “community science” has gained popularity, though not without debate. Raj Pandaya authored a thought-provoking blog post and quiz on the term, while large organizations like the Monarch Joint Venture offer a different point of view

At the Citizen Science Association, we have one term embedded in our name, but it is not the only term we embrace. We welcome the entire range of terminology used in public-powered efforts to do science. As a field, we represent an incredibly broad and diverse array of research areas, project designs, and leadership models, and no single term is a best fit for every single project and person. We also know that terms and issues with terminology vary across cultures and languages; questions and concerns relevant in American English may be irrelevant in a language where no direct translation of the terms in question exist. We encourage individuals and organizations to engage in thoughtful consideration about what terms are best for them and to be respectful of those who make different decisions.

Our new graphic design illustrates the plurality of fields and terminology that are a part of public involvement in scientific research. It celebrates both the differences and the similarities that unite us in giving the power of science to everyone and the power of everyone to science. 

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