Every citizen science project entails a great complexity of actors and an enormous heterogeneity of profiles. Much of the richness of citizen science lies in this diversity, and good communication is the thread that holds all parts together.
Different ages, cultures, beliefs, educational backgrounds or languages can be found among the participants. The management team can include professionals from different fields besides the main scientific area covered, including sociologists, educators or anthropologist. Policy makers, local authorities and other external actors, often also play an important role. With such diversity of profiles involved, good stories can appear where and when least expected.
In their book Citizen Science: Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy, the authors dedicate a complete section to explore communication and education, and to point out their relevance for citizen science projects. Communication is essential for the success of citizen science since -unlike for traditional research- it is embedded in the project from the very beginning. The communication model needs therefore to be thoroughly planned. It must integrate the essence and principles of citizen science, be as inclusive as possible, and satisfy the communication needs and preferences of all the parts involved. It must be open, dynamic, and a better listener than ever.
Rethink communication – design to recruit and retain
In addition to the dissemination of results, most citizen science projects require a good communication strategy for the recruitment and retention of participants.
The citizen scientist is part of the project. As such, he must be heard and receive feedback on the project outputs (5th principle of citizen science ECSA). Moreover, the communication of scientific results must be done in a way that responds to the participant’s needs and preferences (see de Vries et al. 2019 Citizen Science: Theory and Practice). More engaging, continuous and fluid communication formats are needed to keep people motivated and committed.
Rethink communication – make it multi-directional
In a context with more actors and fewer intermediaries, the communication model must leave behind the bi-directional mindset to become multi-directional. The new formats must promote cross-communication and the communication officer must become an enabler for knowledge-sharing among the different parts involved.
Rethink communication – make it bottom-up
The citizen scientist is not only a listener: he builds and adds to the project. Likewise, he is also a source of knowledge and information. The communication strategy of a citizen science project must embrace this situation and empower the participants to become storytellers and generators of information (4th principle of citizen science ECSA).
In their book, S. Ecker et al. tell the example of Natuur.Kalender. This project allows people to report their own observations about changes in nature, thus they become a source of information for journalists and for the public.
Rethink communication – talk policy
Topics covered by citizen science are usually those that concern people. As such, very often interest for policy makers and citizen science coincide (see Hecker, S. et al. 2018 UCL Press). There is a growing relationship among both that the communication model should facilitate. Many examples show how this collaboration can be mutually beneficial.
Mosquito Alert is a citizen science project devoted to mapping populations of disease-transmitting mosquitoes. The initiative has established a fruitful exchange of information with public health authorities that has lead to successful work in the control of these species and their associated diseases.
Rethink communication – adapt to project goals
The goals of citizen science often go far beyond just scientific dissemination. Whether intended outcomes include education, inclusiveness, citizen empowerment, environmental awareness or others, they must be integrated in the communication plan from the very beginning.
In summary, the communication model must be thought as a matrix that integrates and nourishes all the project. It needs to become more constant, flexible and open to co-creation by all the participants.
- Hecker, S., Haklay, M., Bowser, A., Makuch, Z., Vogel, J. & Bonn, A. 2018. Citizen Science: Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy. London: UCL Press. https://doi.org/10.14324/111.9781787352339
- de Vries, M., Land-Zandstra, A. and Smeets, I., 2019. Citizen Scientists’ Preferences for Communication of Scientific Output: A Literature Review. Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, 4(1), p.2. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/cstp.136
- Alycia Crall, Margaret Kosmala, Rebecca Cheng, Jonathan Brier, Darlene Cavalier, Sandra Henderson and Andrew D. Richardson. 2017. Volunteer recruitment and retention in online citizen science projects using marketing strategies: lessons from Season Spotter. Journal of Science Communication 16 (01) https://jcom.sissa.it/sites/default/files/documents/JCOM_1601_2017_A01.pdf
Text by Julia Garcia Lopez.