Blog Post

Coming to Terms

Coming to Terms:

Building a Better Vocabulary for Work in (and about) this Field

Post by Jennifer Shirk, Executive Director, Citizen Science Association

The debate about terms for this field is complicated – but also over-simplified. It’s time to find a way forward.

Image depicting women in a street parade carrying a colorful banner about the WeEngage4Health climate projects. The banner and an additional sign contain a term spelled C-T-Z SCI.
Photo courtesy of Melinda Butsch Kovacic.

The debate

There has been a “citizen science” vs. “community science” debate going back to (and likely pre-dating) the first NSF-funded Citizen Science conference in 2007. This ongoing conversation has brought awareness to very real problems: that harm is caused by the term “citizen,” and harm is caused when the term “community science” is applied to projects that don’t reflect community priorities.

These issues have left many uncertain of how to move forward, either with what they call their own projects or what to expect from an Association under the name “Citizen Science.”

A debate between these two terms can only get us so far. There is a much bigger opportunity that can be opened up by a different set of questions.

A constellation of practices

The binary debate between citizen- and community- science misses much of the array of traditions, practices, and additional terms that people in this field apply to their work.

When I say “this field,” I do so with an understanding that CSA is far younger than many of these traditions and practices. This Association emerged out of a growing awareness of that there were similarities across practices, and that there was a vast opportunity to find community with others facing similar challenges and visions.

To reflect this, the name of the 2012 conference that launched CSA was “Public Participation in Scientific Research” (or PPSR – today this term is perhaps only still used by the National Science Foundation) [see a reflection, and a report]. While this Association ultimately moved forward under different name, the vision for a connected conversation – to share and learn from each others’ work – remains.

As a first step towards re-engaging a conversation that reflects these many practices, we have started asking CSA members questions as simple as, “what different terms do you use for your work?” and “how are volunteer contributors involved?” We are sharing these as a series of vignettes that can reveal a broader set of choices, not only what we call our work but also how we do it (click on each image below to read the first three):

Public science, community-engaged science …

Community mapping, extreme citizen science …

Volunteer monitoring, participatory science …

What defines us?

The risk of embracing a wider conversation is losing sight of what brings us together.

I propose that we share the vision and knowledge that we do science better, together, and share it in two ways:

  • that research can be more powerful because of insights from observers, knowledges, and perspectives beyond scientific institutions.
  • that we not only benefit from but depend on colleagues, collaborators, and opportunities from spaces outside of our own.

Ten years on from the conference called “PPSR,” we are convening for C*Sci2023 to once again invite a conversation across the rich landscape of vocabularies and practices for shared science. This includes hosting a collaborative session about whether a name change for this Association might better reflect and serve our vision for a connected field.

No matter what term (or terms) you use for your work, I invite each of you to join us in an exploration and deepening appreciation of what we can learn from each other. We do science better, together. I am confident that this collaborative and creative community can find a way forward that best reflects the richness of this field. 


* “C-Sciences” include contributory, collaborative, co-created, and other approaches to research and monitoring partnerships occurring beyond the bounds of institutional science.

Related Posts