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Why do people take part in citizen science?

A new report by SEI for the UK government explores what makes citizens collect and share their data.

Howard Cambridge / Published on 23 November 2016

Related people

Sarah West

Centre Director

SEI York

Alison Dyke

Research Fellow

SEI York

Rachel Pateman


SEI York

Worm-spotting for beginners: a young citizen scientist being shown how to identify earthworms as part of an OPAL survey.
Worm-spotting for beginners: a young citizen scientist being shown how to identify earthworms as part of an OPAL survey. Photo: Rachel Pateman

Citizen science, where volunteers and scientists work together to answer scientific questions, can be invaluable for tracking ecosystem or climatic change. But as the role of citizen science grows, it is essential to understand more about the citizen scientists themselves.

In 2015, the UK Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) funded the citizen science team at SEI York to explore this question in the context of environmental citizen science projects, with a particular focus on their motivations for and barriers to submitting gathered data. Their report has just been published.

The project undertook two surveys. One was embedded in a nationwide survey of a regular stratified sample of the UK population (Omnibus), while a dedicated survey using the online tool SurveyMonkey was distributed through the network of the OPAL citizen science project and through social media. This was complemented with a literature review.

Some of the main findings were:

  • The percentage of the UK population that has taken part in environmental citizen science projects to date is small, and participation is biased towards white, male, middle-aged and higher income people.
  • The most common motivations for participating are altruistic (wanting to help others, help wildlife or science more generally), even though participants often start with more egoistic reasons (such as boosting their career prospects).
  • There are various ways to keep participants motivated, including via “How-to” training and communication about the project, feedback about progress (including the importance of ‘negative records’, where a species was looked for but not found), and how the data is being used.
  • The majority of citizen science work is done by a minority of participants, so it is essential to keep these participants motivated.

“I was particularly interested in what we found out about the limited group of people who take part in citizen science,” says  Senior Research Associate Sarah West, who led the SEI team. “Citizen science doesn’t just help scientists, it can also be an opportunity to learn, to get exercise, to meet new people. As project designers, we really should try to be as inclusive as possible.”

For more work on motivations in citizen science conducted by the SEI team, see the report for the UK Environmental Observation Framework. The team is currently working on a paper that will explore these topics in more detail.

Read the new Defra report »

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