One of the most common questions I get when I tell people that I write about citizen science is: can you give me a citizen science definition?

For many years, that wasn’t an easy question to answer. For one thing, no one had really settled on a name for the concept. Terms used to refer to the subject have included participatory science, participatory action research, participatory monitoring, civic science, civic scientists, citizen scientists, and even crowdsourced science. Phew!

There has also been a lot of discussion over what the term should cover, in terms of scope, and where it belonged. Was it a topic for people involved in the investigation of the public understanding of science? Did it fall under science communication studies? Or what about science, technology, and society scholarship? Fiona Clark and Deborah Illman would lament, in a 2001 paper, that “concepts and terms used in the literature and the press to characterize civic scientists and civic science have been ambiguous, if not conflicting.”

A few years later, in 2004, Bruce Lewenstein of Cornell University attempted to pin it down with a three-part definition:

  1. the participation of nonscientists in the process of gathering data according to specific scientific protocols and in the process of using and interpreting that data;
  2. the engagement of nonscientists in true decision-making about policy issues that have technical or scientific components; and
  3. the engagement of research scientists in the democratic and policy process.

As you can see, there was a fair amount of overlap between the concepts of scientific research, scientific policy-making, and even science advocacy.

By 2009, Jonathan Silvertown was defining citizen scientists as volunteers who collect and/or process data as part of a scientific enquiry. While simpler, this definition caused some consternation because it specified volunteers (leaving out anyone who might be a nonscientist, yet paid for his/her efforts), and it didn’t leave any room for citizen science work in the creation and management of projects. For example, after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, a group of citizens would band together to create Safecast.

In 2013, the Green Paper on Citizen Science suggested that:

Citizen Science refers to the general public engagement in scientific research activities when citizens actively contribute to science either with their intellectual effort or surrounding knowledge or with their tools and resources.

This was better, and more inclusive, but still a mouthful.

Fast forward to last year, and the concept had become a movement, and the definition had been polished and simplified… at least, outside of academia and according to the Oxford dictionary. In it’s June 2014 update, the term citizen science was officially added to the Oxford Dictionary and defined as:

scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.

This is a pretty good definition, and I can just imagine how much debate, argument, and general wordsmithing had to go into it. It’s inclusive of a number of different types of citizen science projects, while keeping the scope vis-a-vis science policy and decision making under control.

It’s certainly how I think about citizen science when deciding what to write up for this blog. Then again, I might be biased, as I came up with something reasonably similar here. 😉

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