Book Review: Building a Foundation in Environmental Citizen Science


Dickinson, Janis L. & Bonney, Rick. (eds). Citizen Science: Public Participation in Environmental Research. Cornell University Press, 2012. 279 pages. Paperback $US 29.95.

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Though it was published in 2012, Citizen Science: Public Participation in Environmental Research is relevant to our present moment. As discussions of environmental research increase in frequency and urgency, institutions at all levels will continue to raise questions about the public’s scientific literacy and the best methods of mobilizing scientific knowledge. This text works through these questions, asserting that “citizen science has a crucial role to play” in increasing the “public understanding of science concepts and processes” in environmental research and on a broader scale, adding the call to action that “this role [of citizen science] requires investigation” (pg. 11).

Despite being primarily targeted at an academic audience, Citizen Science remains valuable for people interested in citizen science at any level. Functioning as a foundational text for citizen science research in environmental science and beyond, each chapter draws on contextualized examples across environmental research, pulling together literature throughout citizen science. Citizen Science chronicles the diverse work done by the citizen science community, with relevance for researchers, educators, and the citizen scientist volunteers themselves. The contributors in this edited text address the central question: “Given that citizen science is a natural fit to combined social and ecological systems, how might it best meet its potential to achieve ambitious individual, societal, scientific, educational, and management goals over broad geographic and temporal scales?” (pg. 4).

Broken into three parts, Citizen Science has an underlying narrative of an expanding research process. Starting with the topics of design and procedure, moving to analysis, and ending by addressing the reciprocal impacts of citizen science on volunteers and researchers, each contribution is tied together by an ongoing discussion of the benefits that environmental citizen science research ultimately has for the natural world and the global community. “Part I: The Practice of Citizen Science” begins with a general overview of the design and research process for citizen science studies, before moving into a series of case studies to introduce the concepts of  “Design,” “Participant Interaction,” “Training and Educational Resources,” “Data Collection and Validation,” “Impacts,” and “Sustainability” in relation to citizen science. A key area of focus in Part I is the importance of not only promoting and engaging in citizen science projects, but also of maintaining the projects both financially and through the labor that goes into maintaining volunteer growth and involvement.

“Part II: Impacts of Citizen Science on Conservation Research” works through specific examples to describe the potential for citizen science projects to provide large-scale data collection and data analysis, as well as explores how researchers are able to work with and interpret these large datasets. Part II is a great resource for people interested in starting their own citizen science project, regardless of discipline, to understand what has and has not worked effectively in project design and implementation. While Citizen Science ultimately takes an optimistic outlook about outcomes of citizen science research, the text is also aware of weaknesses in the process of citizen science and attempts to address them. Throughout, the contributors provide examples, such as the relation between “straightforward data-collection protocols” and “observational data with many known and suspected biases” (pg. 131), in a move to prepare future researchers and analysts to address these obstacles. As an example, Fink and Hochachka, contributors to the text, cite eBird, a popular citizen science project: while “species detectability is an important source of bias,” it can be compensated for through the inclusion of variables like “number of hours spent searching” and “distance traveled while searching,” as well as including “the time of day” (pg. 131) in researchers’ statistical models.

Part III is particularly interesting for non-expert audiences, as it addresses how educators and students can become involved in citizen science—involvement that benefits both citizen scientists and researchers. When students and researchers work together, “students benefit through use of rigorous and well-tested protocols that are provided and supported by scientists, and scientists benefit through access to student-generated data” (pg. 189). With the rise of the internet and social media, “Part III: Educational, Social, and Behavioral Aspects of Citizen Science” also acts as an introduction to the social networks within citizen science projects. These networks, both in online forums and on social network sites like Facebook and Twitter, are focused on citizen scientist-researcher and citizen scientist-citizen scientist social interactions.

While the authors discuss citizen science’s relation to social media and new technology, there remains a need for these and other authors to conduct more investigation in these areas. Where citizen science technologies have drawn the attention of youth, Citizen Science also identifies a need for the inclusion of a more diverse group of people. Fitzpatrick writes in the afterword that, in regard to engaging a larger scope of the general population, many of the “projects have neither found the formula nor achieved the scale required to improve science literacy in any element of society” (pg. 239). This doesn’t seem to be a pessimistic take on the capacity of citizen science to positively influence public conceptions of science. Rather, this text demonstrates that there is not one single method that effectively reaches out to every element of our global society, but instead a need for multiple methods. What the authors do in this edited text is demonstrate where citizen science has succeeded, where citizen science has fallen short, and where you as a researcher, a citizen scientist, or an educator can build upon existing frameworks to create more inclusive and more effective means of involving and educating people in environmental (and other) citizen science projects.

This review is part of an ongoing series of book reviews written by members of Dr. Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher’s research team in partnership with SciStarter. If you have a recommendation for a book to review, please contact SciStarter Editor Caroline Nickerson at [email protected]. This work has been partially supported by the Ontario Ministry of Research; Innovation and Science’s Early Research Award program; and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Grant program. Views expressed are the opinions of the author and not funding agencies.

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone! 

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About the Author

Lillian A. Black

Lillian A. Black is an M.A. student in English Language & Literature, Rhetoric and Communication Design at the University of Waterloo, in Canada. Her research examines the affordances new media forms (e.g. YouTube videos) provide for mobilizing complex knowledge for general audiences and the accommodations that need to be made to reach these mobilization goals.


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