Every day, volunteers around the world contribute to scientific research through “citizen science”. Citizen science can be anything from counting migratory birds to measuring rainfall or even tracking COVID-19 outbreaks. Citizen science helps researchers collect more data than they could work on their own. The people involved in these projects also benefit by gaining knowledge of the areas in which they work and gaining skills.
We are two researchers who study biology, the environment and the role of citizen science in these areas. In a new article published June 22, 2022 in the journal BioScience, we used survey data from 2016 to 2019 to better understand the demographics of citizen scientists.
Several small studies have shown that citizen science volunteers tend to be white, well-educated, and have high incomes. But this homogeneity of participants is common knowledge among researchers, and few collect detailed demographic data on citizen science participants.
In our survey, we collected race, income, and other demographic information. In total, we received 3894 responses. Most of the responses – 3,191 – came from the 2016 Christmas Bird Count, the world’s longest-running bird-related citizen science project. Since 1900, thousands of people in the United States and abroad have been counting birds around Christmas and reporting the results to the Audubon Society.
We also collected data from 280 members of Candid Critters, a project that uses security cameras to study wild mammals, and 423 members of SciStarter.org, an online directory of citizen science projects.
Overall, 95% of respondents identified as white. The lack of racial diversity was striking for each sample: 96% of participants in both Christmas Bird count and Candid Critters identified as white, and 88% of SciStarter respondents said the same. While only 14% of the US population has a college or professional education, about half of our survey respondents have these degrees. Additionally, while only 6% of the US population has a career in science, technology, engineering, or math, almost half of our survey respondents from all three data sources worked in STEM fields.
Problems due to lack of diversity
Participation in citizen science comes with personal benefits, such as learning new skills and building a community. If citizen science reaches only educated white science professionals, then it concentrates the benefits of participation in this group.
Moreover, if one of the goals of citizen science is to increase scientific literacy and trust in science, it cannot achieve this goal if it preaches to the choir, speaking only to people who are already working in science.
Finally, the lack of diversity in citizen science may even jeopardize the quality of research. For example, one study found that volunteer observers who were mostly well-educated and white under-sample neighborhoods where environmental issues disproportionately affected poor communities of color.
Initiatives such as “Black Bird Week” aim to reach out to people of color who are interested in nature and science, and draw attention to them. SciStarter, where one of us volunteers as Director of Research Collaboration, is a long-term effort to develop inclusive citizen science programs. Through partnerships with community groups, schools, churches, companies, and libraries, some recent SciStarter initiatives have attracted over 40% non-white participants.
Reforming citizen science through inclusive and equitable practices will not only improve science but also more equitably distribute the benefits of these projects and ultimately help bring science to a more diverse perspective.