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Volunteers Who Help Gather Data for Science Are Committed, but Not Diverse

The findings could help researchers with volunteer recruitment and designing future projects

In a new study, North Carolina (NC) State University researchers found that while many volunteers who sign up to help crowdsource scientific findings are extremely motivated and committed, these projects aren’t attracting a diverse pool of volunteers. The findings could help researchers design and structure future projects, as well as point to priorities for volunteer recruitment.

“Participation in citizen science isn’t reaching as far into different segments of the public as we had hoped for in the field,” said Caren Cooper, the study’s corresponding author and an associate professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State. “We’re seeing that most volunteers are mostly highly educated White people, with a high percentage of STEM professionals. We’re not even reaching other types of professionals. This is part of the wake-up call that’s underway in the field right now.”

Through crowdsourcing for research, sometimes known as “citizen science,” volunteers have made major contributions to science. They’ve helped track where North American monarch butterflies fly to in the winter and set up cameras to track animals in the wild. The field of citizen science has grown, and researchers wanted to know who these volunteers are, what types of research they’re participating in, and how many different projects they’re joining.

“In the last decade or so, there’s been explosion of citizen-science projects in different disciplines and models, both online and offline,” said the study’s lead author Bradley Allf, a graduate student at NC State. “We were curious about what participation looks like in terms of the numbers and types of projects people are doing.”

Between 2016 and 2019, researchers surveyed 3,894 people who volunteered for two different individual science projects, as well as people who had accounts on SciStarter.org, a large online catalogue of citizen-science projects. The two projects were the Christmas Bird Count, the National Audubon Society’s annual census of winter birds, and Candid Critters, a project led by NC State researchers and partners to track wildlife using camera traps. In addition to the surveys, researchers also tracked the online activity of 3,649 SciStarter.org participants.

When they looked at the demographics of volunteers who participated in multiple projects, they found that participants were more likely to be White, to work in STEM fields, and to hold advanced degrees.

Less than five percent of nearly 3,600 volunteers who answered questions about their demographics in the surveys identified as Black, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, Native American, or Latin American. In addition, nearly half of volunteers sampled worked in science fields, while half held graduate or other advanced degrees.

Researchers said the lack of diversity was disconcerting since participating in these projects can have benefits for volunteers, offering educational opportunities and ways to learn about their communities. But they also said there are efforts underway to address disparities by recruiting through corporate volunteer programs and churches.

“Through these projects, volunteers can learn about science, but also about their own communities,” Allf said. “If those benefits are being concentrated in people who already have a lot of access to power in society, and to science generally, then citizen science is doing a disservice to the underserved.”

One of their key findings was that many volunteers are willing to participate in multiple projects. In fact, 77 percent of all volunteers they studied—through surveys and online—joined multiple science projects. Some volunteers were “super-users,” joining as many as 50 projects.

“If your goal as a researcher is to understand citizen scientists and the impact your experiences might have on them, but you’re analyzing them through just one project, you are probably getting a simplistic view of who that person is, and the richness of their experiences,” Allf said.

Researchers said their findings suggest that scientists should expect to share volunteers, so they should coordinate their efforts. Some projects will likely serve as “gateways” to citizen science more broadly. Researchers could structure projects as part of a trajectory, with volunteers gaining skills as they progress through increasingly more challenging work.

“This opens up the possibility for scaffolding citizen science experiences,” Allf said.

- This press release was originally published on the North Carolina State University website