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March 2015

What is citizen science?
by Ken-ichi Ueda




Seriously, that was not (entirely) a rhetorical question: I don't actually know. You'd think I would, since I help manage an online social network that many people describe as a "citizen science" tool, but frankly, I don't. Is it the science of studying citizens, or is it science practiced by citizens? If the latter, aren't all scientists citizens of somewhere, and therefore the term is redundant? Or do scientists exist in some numinous political plane beyond the state?


One possible definition is that "citizen science" generally refers to the practice of using the labor of volunteers to collect data for professional scientists that they could not collect themselves, either because there's too much data for the scientists to collect, or they can't afford to hire professionals to collect it (different facets of the same problem, really). It's hard for me to endorse this view, because it presupposes that "science" can only be performed by professionals, as if riding your bike should be called "citizen cycling" if you're not getting paid to do it.

Beard lichens (genus Usnea) at Redwood Regional Park


It also assumes that data collection is somehow extrinsic enough to the scientific process that the people who do it can be separately classified as "citizens" and excluded from the rest of the scientific endeavor, like analyzing the data they collect, drawing conclusions from those analyses, and asking new questions.

Milkmaids (Cardamine californica) at Redwood Regional Park


The best "citizen science" projects try to avoid these pitfalls, but there's another kind of endeavor that often gets lumped under the same heading but doesn't quite fit the definition. I like to call it lifestyle science: using objectivity, observation, and systematic thinking to understand and engage the world. If that sounds a bit vague, consider my website, It's a social network for naturalists where people record and share observations of organisms, usually through photographs of plants, birds, spiders, pond scum protozoans, you name it. You can post a pic of a weird flower you saw on a hike, and someone somewhere on Earth might see it on the website and help you identify it, or just talk to you about it. It's a fun way to learn about nature.

iNaturalist often gets described as a "citizen science" project because the people using our site are often not professional scientists (though many are), and because members of our community collect information systematically and categorize organisms in a taxonomy derived from scientific research. But the critical difference lies in why people do these things, or why we hope they do. iNaturalist was not set up to answer a question, nor was it designed to publish a paper in an academic journal. We made it because we like getting outside and looking for and identifying organisms, and we wanted a way to keep track of these activities and get help with that (often) tricky identification part. From the outset it was clear that these kinds of behaviors could create scientifically useful data about when and where organisms occur, but it was also clear to us that this wasn't why we did these things. I didn't just wander around Redwood Regional Park this morning looking for flowers, salamanders, snails, and lady beetles because I thought some scientist somewhere would find it useful.


I did it because spring is springing and flowers are beautiful, because salamanders are strange and exquisite, because identifying land snails is challenging and I want to know more about them, and because lady beetles have become part of my definition of winter in the Bay Area and I haven't seen them for a while. It is the organisms themselves that motivate me to get out there and document them. And similarly, I am not about to upload my photos to iNaturalist because I think they will be useful to someone in a lab coat.

Land snail (genus Helminthoglypta) at Redwood Regional Park


Millipede (Xystocheir dissecta) glowing under UV light in the Berkeley Hills


I'll upload them for my personal records, so the next time I go to Redwood at this time of year I can look back and compare my findings. I'll upload them because the act of doing so forces me to think about my experiences again, and perhaps more deeply, as I try to identify those snails, and perhaps notice details in my photos I hadn't seen when I was taking them. And I'll upload them because maybe other naturalists like me will find them useful if they would like to know where to find flowers, salamanders, snails, and lady beetles in the East Bay.
The point here is that unlike “citizen science” as it is usually defined, lifestyle science (if you'll allow me this neologism) generally, and iNaturalist specifically, are intrinsically satisfying. We engage in this practice not out of duty, but because it is its own reward.


Canyon gooseberry (Ribes menziesii ) in Huckleberry Regional Botanic Preserve


This is not to say the byproducts of these activities cannot be scientifically useful. In fact, they can be enormously useful. For example, in 2011 Luis Mazariegos, the owner of a small ecotourism resort in Colombia, posted a picture of a frog he'd seen on his property. U.S. herpetologist Ted Kahn from the Smithsonian Institution saw it on the site, thought it might be a new species, and flew down to check it out. He later published a description for this new species, first documented by an amateur and "found" on a social network! More recently, scientists from Oxford published a paper mapping the distribution of African bat species that host Ebola in an effort to determine where the highly improbable event of transmission to humans might occur. Much of their data on bat occurrences came from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility in Copenhagen, and many of their African bat records come from, you guessed it, iNaturalist, where we have a strong network of bat observers.

Overwintering lady beetles (family Coccinellidae)—these are at Huckleberry Regional Botanic Preserve

On a broader scale, scientists are not even close to finishing the job of documenting all the species that occur on our planet, and given the decline of natural history as a profession, it's hard to see who will be able to complete this task. Also, in a world of constant change, it's impossible to definitively say where and when all these organisms occur, even if we knew what to call them. Satellites can only tell us about big things like trees and elephants, and large-scale DNA-based sampling will only ever be as good as our voucher-backed libraries of reference DNA to compare with, which in turn come from that very traditional practice of natural history that, as I mentioned, is being squeezed out of universities. A global community of amateur, self-motivated naturalists might just be the only scalable way to both fill in the gaps of what species are out there, and to monitor where and when they occur. But the only way to foster such a community is to ensure that everyone in it finds the community and its tools to be valuable to them, and that the practice fostered by this community is intrinsically rewarding.
And that's what we're trying to do with iNaturalist. Join us!


See what iNaturalist is all about:

Upcoming Classes
A click here will take you to a full description of the class as well as the class registration form
Saturday, May 9, 10 am–12 pm
Gardens All Abuzz: Partnering with Pollinators Space Available
Saturday, June 6, 10 am–4 pm On-the-Trail Nature Journaling Space Available
Illustration/Photo Credits

©Ken-ichi Ueda

All photographs included in article, including top photo: yellow-eyed ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii xanthoptica) from Briones Regional Park