Volunteers Who Help Gather Data for Science Are Committed, But Not Diverse

In a new study, North Carolina State University researchers found that while many volunteers who sign up to help crowdsource scientific findings are extremely motivated and committed, these projects aren’t attracting a diverse pool of volunteers. The findings could help researchers design and structure future projects, as well as point to priorities for volunteer recruitment.

“Participation in citizen science isn’t reaching as far into different segments of the public as we had hoped for in the field,” said Caren Cooper, the study’s corresponding author and an associate professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State. “We’re seeing that most volunteers are mostly highly educated white people, with a high percentage of STEM professionals. We’re not even reaching other types of professionals. This is part of the wake-up call that’s underway in the field right now.”

Through crowdsourcing for research, sometimes known as “citizen science,” volunteers have made major contributions to science. They’ve helped track where North American monarch butterflies fly to in the winter and set up cameras to track animals in the wild. The field of citizen science has grown, and researchers wanted to know who these volunteers are, what types of research they’re participating in and how many different projects they’re joining.

“In the last decade or so, there’s been explosion of citizen-science projects in different disciplines and models, both online and offline,” said the study’s lead author Bradley Allf, a graduate student at NC State. “We were curious about what participation looks like in terms of the numbers and types of projects people are doing.”

Between 2016 and 2019, researchers surveyed 3,894 people who volunteered for two different individual science projects, as well as people who had accounts on SciStarter.org, a large online catalogue of citizen-science projects. The two projects were the Christmas Bird Count, the National Audubon Society’s annual census of winter birds, and Candid Critters, a project led by NC State researchers and partners to track wildlife using camera traps. In addition to the surveys, researchers also tracked the online activity of 3,649 SciStarter.org participants.  

When they looked at the demographics of volunteers who participated in multiple projects, they found that participants were more likely to be white, to work in STEM fields, and to hold advanced degrees.

Less than 5% of nearly 3,600 volunteers who answered questions about their demographics in the surveys identified as Black, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, Native American or Latin American. In addition, nearly half of volunteers sampled worked in science fields, while half held graduate or other advanced degrees.

Researchers said the lack of diversity was disconcerting since participating in these projects can have benefits for volunteers, offering educational opportunities and ways to learn about their communities. But they also said there are efforts underway to address disparities by recruiting through corporate volunteer programs and churches.

“Through these projects, volunteers can learn about science, but also about their own communities,” Allf said. “If those benefits are being concentrated in people who already have a lot of access to power in society, and to science generally, then citizen science is doing a disservice to the underserved.”

One of their key findings was that many volunteers are willing to participate in multiple projects. In fact, 77% of all volunteers they studied – through surveys and online – joined multiple science projects. Some volunteers were “super-users,” joining as many as 50 projects.

“If your goal as a researcher is to understand citizen scientists and the impact your experiences might have on them, but you’re analyzing them through just one project, you are probably getting a simplistic view of who that person is, and the richness of their experiences,” Allf said.

Researchers said their findings suggest that scientists should expect to share volunteers, so they should coordinate their efforts. Some projects will likely serve as “gateways” to citizen science more broadly. Researchers could structure projects as part of a trajectory, with volunteers gaining skills as they progress through increasingly more challenging work.

“This opens up the possibility for scaffolding citizen science experiences,” Allf said.

The work appears in BioScience. Co-authors included Lincoln R. Larson and Robert R. Dunn of NC State; Sara E. Futch,of The Nature Conservancy; Maria Sarova of Thriving Earth Exchange, an initiative of the American Geophysical Union; and Darlene Cavalier of the Arizona State University School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and the founder and director of SciStarter. The study was supported by National Science Foundation grant No. 1713562. The material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program under Grant No. DGE-1746939.


Note to editors: The abstract follows.

“Citizen Science as an Ecosystem of Engagement: Implications for Learning and Broadening Participation”

Authors: Bradley C. Allf, Caren B. Cooper, Lincoln R. Larson, Robert R. Dunn, Sara E. Futch, Marai Sarova and Darlene Cavalier.

DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biac035

Published online in BioScience on June 22, 2022.

Abstract: The bulk of research on citizen science participants is project-centric, based on an assumption that volunteers experience a single project. Contrary to this assumption, survey responses (n=3,894) and digital trace data (n=3,649) from volunteers, who collectively engaged in 1,126 unique projects, revealed that multi-project participation was the norm. Only 23% of volunteers were singletons (who participated in only one project), and multi-project participants split evenly between disciplines specialists (39%) and discipline spanners (38% joined projects with different disciplinary topics), and unevenly between mode specialists (67%) and mode spanners (33% participated in online and offline projects). Public engagement was narrow: multi-project participants were eight times more likely to be white, and five times more likely to hold advanced degrees, than the general population. We propose a volunteer-centric framework that explores how the dynamic accumulation of experiences in a project ecosystem can support broad learning objectives and inclusive citizen science. 

This post was originally published in NC State News.