Citizen science programs advance the public understanding of science

January 1st, 2016

This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


The term “citizen science” has been used to describe a broad spectrum of activities in which amateur or lay members of the public participate in scientific research.  While some of these projects, called participatory action research, emerge from the interests and concerns of communities and are undertaken in consultation with scientists, most citizen science projects originate with scientists, who recruit large networks of volunteers to collect and sometimes analyze data (Cooper et. al., 2007).  In addition to collecting valuable data for scientists, most citizen science projects also aim to educate participants not only about the immediate subject of the research but also broader methods of scientific investigation (Bonney et. al., 2009).

Citizen science projects have grown in both popularity and scope over the past two decades, with projects taking place in such disciplines as mammalogy, ornithology, entomology, botany, natural resource management, astronomy, genetics, hydrology, and atmospheric science. Scientific AmericanNASACornell University, and SciStarter provide lists of current citizen science projects.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Measuring the understanding of science by citizen science participants

There are multiple ways to measure the impact of citizen science projects on participants’ scientific literacy.  Among those suggested by Bonney et. al. (2009) are:

  • Duration of involvement by project participants

  • Numbers of participant visits to project web sites

  • Improved participant understanding of science content

  • Enhanced participant understanding of science process

  • Better participant attitudes toward science

  • Improved participant skills for conducting science

  • Increased participant interest in science as a career

Of these criteria, published research focuses most frequently on attitudes and understanding. Specifically, studies have looked at project participants’ learning and retention of facts about science, their growth in understanding about scientific methods, and their attitudes toward science and the environment.

Projects’ impacts on participants’ attitudes and understanding

In general, it appears these projects increase participants’ comprehension of the subject of the research in which they are participating, but the projects are less successful in expanding volunteers’ broader understanding of science. In their study of scientific literacy among participants in the Neighborhood Nestwatch project in Washington, D.C., Evans et. al. (2005) found that while 87 percent of participants reported increased knowledge in bird biology and behavior, 44 percent of participants did not understand Nestwatch’s goals or know how scientists would use the data collected by citizens (p. 591).  Similarly, Brossard et. al. (2005) determined that participants in the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s Birdhouse Network increased volunteers’ knowledge of bird biology but had no measurable impact on their attitudes toward the environment or science; nor did it improve their understanding of the processes scientists use in their research.

Drawing on the recommendations of Brossard et. al. that project directors need to be clearer with participants on project goals and scientific methods more generally, as well as develop more sensitive instruments for measuring qualitative changes in attitudes toward science and the environment, Cronje et. al. (2011) used a contextual questionnaire that asked questions specifically about monitoring invasive species: why it is important to collect data about them, how to ensure the integrity of data about them, why sampling plots are an essential tool in this study, and why geolocation is important. They also asked participants a more general question about “what it means to study something scientifically.” These researchers found that participants increased their “understanding of scientific methodology, validity, and reasoning related to monitoring invasive species” but could not adequately articulate the meaning of scientific study.


Bonney, R., Cooper, C. B., Dickinson, J., Kelling, S., Phillips, T., Rosenberg, K. V., & Shirk, J. Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. BioScience 59(11), 977–984. DOI: 10.1525/bio.2009.59.11.9 Retrieved from

Brossard, D., Lewenstein, B., & Bonney, R. (2005). Scientific knowledge and attitude change: The impact of a citizen science project. International Journal of Science Education 27 (9), 1099–1121. DOI: 10.1080/09500690500069483. Retrieved from

Cooper, C. B., Dickinson, J., Phillips, T., & Bonney, R. (2007). Citizen science as a tool for conservation in residential ecosystems. Ecology and Society 12(2), 11. Retrieved from

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Gateway. Citizen Science Central.

Cronje, R., Rohlinger, S., Crall, A., & Newman, G. (2011): Does participation in citizen science improve scientific literacy? A study to compare assessment methods. Applied Environmental Education & Communication 10(3), 135-145.

Evans, C., Abrams, E., Reitsma, R., Roux, K., Salmonsen, L., & Marra, P. (2005). The Neighborhood Nestwatch Program: Participant outcomes of a citizen-science ecological research project. Conservation Biology 19(3), 589-594. Retrieved from

NASA Science. For citizen scientists.

Science For Citizens, LLC. SciStarter Project Finder.

Scientific American. Citizen Science: Projects.