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Citizen Science goes virtual – Digitalisation as a boom in participatory science?

Ordinary citizens involvement in scientific research should not be taken as a matter of course. Nevertheless, the history of science has over time seen various forms of civil society participation, including Citizen Science (CS), which is currently expanding not only on a scientific level, but also within political and social spheres.

According to a recent announcement by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, citizens’ participation in scientific research is to be integrated into the science system as a permanent feature. This should not be taken as a matter of course, given the history of professionalisation and development of autonomy within science generally. Yet, over time various forms of civil society participation have emerged, including so-called Citizen Science (CS), which is currently experiencing a boom not only on a scientific level but also within political and social spheres. This phenomenon will be outlined by addressing three questions:

  • What are the hopes and risks associated with such a participatory opening of science?
  • How has scientific participation become differentiated and transformed into CS?
  • To what extent is digitalisation transforming participatory science?

Hopes and risks of civic society participation

The idea of participatory science builds on the public relevance of research. Science is confronted with the so-called’ publication imperative’. This is why informing with transparency and compatibility, mindful of research in other fields such as politics or even general public output, constitutes a societal demand on science, as Wenninger and Dickel explain. From the premise that scientific research is, in principle, also a concern for the general public, there emerges a public interest in participation, albeit initially, its shape is unclear. While scientific communication informs about science and enters the public dialogue, knowledge production rests with science itself. The latter represents, among other things, one of the foundations on which political decisions concerning the common good are made.

Development towards participatory opening
of knowledge production

This model works only so long as professional experts enjoy public confidence. However, disagreements within science that have extended into the public domain regarding knowledge produced and moral assessment, especially in the context of catastrophes such as Chornobyl, have led to a slow decline in this bond of trust since the 1970s. This has resulted in public demands not just to be informed but to become involved actors in the assessment of science and the negotiation of a new social contract between science and ordinary citizens. This has initiated development towards a participatory opening of knowledge production, which also considers the expertise of scientific laypeople. However, the field of science is orientated explicitly towards autonomy and the reduction of such external influences to preserve its independence. This quest is reflected in structural restrictions placed on active participation. To engage scientifically, minimum requirements must include appropriate academic degrees (usually doctorates); scientific-methodological training; performance of specific activities (for instance, research and teaching); and control mechanisms (including peer reviews). In this way, the quality of research and the production of professional knowledge should be maintained.

Between the poles of laypeople and experts

Accordingly, at first sight, it seems relatively unlikely that laypeople can be smoothly integrated into knowledge production. Science is faced with ambivalence here. On the one hand, participatory knowledge production contains the hope that external and more diverse perspectives will deliberately find their way into science and that science will thus be able to do justice to the growing public demands for scientific participation. On the other hand, this participatory opening also entails risks if involvement no longer requires academic education. This could see anti-scientific expertise or ideology possibly being carried into scientific research. As a result, the safeguarding of science’s autonomy and research quality would become increasingly difficult.

Interestingly, this tension does not lead to a categorical exclusion of participation in science. Instead, different practices emerge between laypeople and experts in producing evidential knowledge. In our sociological research, we describe this specifically as evidence practices, whereby we want to refer to Citizen Science (CS) as a form of participatory lay involvement.

Differentiation and change of scientific participation

Before we go into these CS evidence practices in more detail, we must first look at the changes in specific forms of participation, for public engagement in science is by no means a new phenomenon. CS should first be differentiated from science communication, which shows the beginning of new participation structures in science but does not represent direct participation. Similarly, invited participation, which can also be found in CS, must be distinguished from uninvited participation. The latter manifests itself, among other things, in civil society commitment but can also extend to anti-scientific efforts such as para-science. The different forms of uninvited participation are characterised by research being conducted beyond classical scientific structures without being encouraged to do so in a science-initiated project. In the following section, though, the focus is on developing institutional science participation.

From science communication to knowledge production

The beginnings of science communication lie in the 19th century; one of the early institutions involved was the Berlin Humboldt Academy, founded in 1878. The first forms of participatory citizen science – in the sense of bringing laypeople’s everyday expertise into research – can also be located in the 19th century, especially in nature studies. Besides discussions mentioned earlier on the social responsibility of science in the 1970s, the so-called Public Understanding of Science (PUS) represents an initial programme of far-reaching public information about scientific findings to counter, for instance, anti-scientific interpretations. As a further development of PUS, oriented towards science communication, Public Engagement with Science came into being, emphasising the dialogue between science and research. So-called consensus conferences from the late 1980s onwards (where experts and citizens discuss various issues) form just one example of this more participatory orientation of science. During the 1990s, the term Citizen Science (CS) became noticeably established. This describes the participatory inclusion to different extents of citizens in scientific research projects specifically designed for this purpose, thus focusing on participation in concrete knowledge production. In this targeted focus, another historical development in CS is coming to the fore in the 21st century: digitalisation.

Digital transformation of participatory science

From an “analogue” perspective, participation in CS can range from pure data collection under scientific supervision to analytical inclusion and possible co-authorship. Digital infrastructures offer new potential for participation. For example, one opportunity is presented by its local independence. CS can be carried out through digital applications directly whilst travelling (meteor observation in the night sky with the help of mapping apps) or from home on the computer (for instance, modelling RNA structures). Laypeople can thus also contribute to research beyond academic settings such as universities. Hence, a supplement to existing research infrastructures emerges through CS. Furthermore, greater mobile accessibility to research contexts increases participation opportunities for laypeople. The hope described above that participatory science will meet the public interest in participation can be further strengthened by digital CS. At the same time, though, digitalisation also means amplifying the risks described in classic research. The digital participation of laypeople and the resulting increase in data volumes magnify the risk that data may not only be collected incorrectly (since laypeople have no training in scientific methods of data acquisition) but that this may happen on a massive scale. This could, in turn, make the overall data quality of questionable standard.

Minimising risk through the digitalisation of epistemic control

How professional science as a social actor reacts to the fact that opportunities for digital participation are also being accompanied by risks for the field itself can now be regarded as a question of sociological relevance. Interestingly, the response is not to reject digital participation but to find the answer through digitalisation. Indeed, epistemic controls are increasingly being built into digital applications to ensure data quality. An example is the app Flora incognita, which simplifies the identification of plant species through the technical embedding of various databanks. By using such applications, human “error sources” can be reduced for data assessment. This can be described as (in this case, technical) evidence practice or, in simplified terms, as a method through which empirically secured knowledge can be produced. The digitalisation of participation is followed by the digitalisation of epistemic control.

Between the loss of autonomy and a new, collective knowledge culture

This circular relationship between participation and evidence gathering represents a specific form within the social practice of scientific (and digital) participation, which can be observed, for instance, through quantitative components such as data volumes. A study of the digital CS project Galaxy Zoo by Kasperowski and Hillman, which aims to categorise galaxies, showed, among other things, that project participants also developed their own epistemic claims, in other words, the will to influence the production of knowledge. Laypeople were not satisfied with how their activities and information were being organised in the project and hence used digital science forums to question the research design. Digital networking has led to intensified epistemic negotiations between all actors involved. When participants asked whether they had made relevant observations, the project leaders and researchers responded in different ways. Most answers were relatively short and lacked the explanations looked for by the laypeople. Further comments were sometimes given. There were also resistant reactions to laypeople and their questioning of project activities, whereby the researchers referred to the original concept of lay activity and opposed alternative interpretations. This is where different evidential practices meet, both on the part of laypeople (attributing their expertise) and on the part of researchers (regulating the epistemic objections of laypeople), which reciprocally influence each other. Even though only a schematic depiction of these processes is possible within the framework of this blog post, it becomes apparent here that CS is not merely an addition of lay participation to scientific projects. Research concepts themselves can become subject to negotiation. Thus, regarding the sense of a new, collective knowledge culture, a qualitative dimension within the extension of science can also be recognised. This increases participation so far as content is concerned but also increasingly promotes the risk of science losing its autonomy. Accordingly, evidential practices do not create a phenomenon that affects research or laypeople alone. They are revealed precisely in the tension between the claims to participation and securing scientific standards.

A wide field of opportunities and risks

Participation in science presents itself here as a circular process defined by different evidential practices that are permanently and reciprocally negotiated in the course of knowledge production. Therefore, the CS objective of our investigation must be given multi-layered consideration. Participation does not merely imply the extension of existing research infrastructures in the sense of addition to research. It is also important to evaluate the extent to which established scientific structures are being brought into negotiations as an extension or transformation of epistemic knowledge production. Digitalisation can intensify CS’s participation and critical potential, but it can also be used as an “antidote” to secure scientific evidence. It is, therefore, necessary to consider the reciprocal conditionality of participatory science and digitalisation. A boom in CS through digitalisation can undoubtedly be seen with reference to the various possibilities for participation and the quantity of data in CS projects. This indeed represents new opportunities for participatory science. However, this also means more significant challenges for the autonomy of scientific knowledge production.

We aim to evaluate all aspects of this tension in participatory science within the project “The Evidence Culture of Citizen Science”, which is based at the bidt and funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). It is simultaneously a subproject of the interdisciplinary DFG research group “Evidence Practices in Science, Medicine, Technology and Society”. In this project, our primary intention is to focus on the social establishment of CS. Here, we will concentrate on cross-project quality assurance from CS, including creating new CS networks such as the umbrella organisation ESCA, national CS platforms such as “Citizens Create Knowledge”, and the emergence of specific guidelines for implementing “good” scientific practice for CS. One of the future tasks within our project will be to investigate the extent to which digitalisation also influences the establishment of CS and, thus, its qualitative control. This serves the goal of generating sound knowledge about the production of scientific insights in the age of digital participation.

The blogs published by the bidt represent the authors’ views; they do not reflect the position of the Institute as a whole.