Citizen Science, It's not a Game

Citizen Science, It's not a Game

As part of our quest into understanding the emergent properties of social machines, one avenue of current research is the study of citizen science. In recent years, this Web activity has become a great exemplar of crowdsourcing and "Wisdom of the Crowd", where thousands - and now millions - of volunteers spend their own free time completing scientific in order to further our current knowledge in many different domains. Galaxy Zoo, which could be considered the poster child of citizen science, illustrates just how successful these systems can be; attracting millions of individuals to help classify the shapes and types of galaxies, GalaxyZoo offers citizen scientists the ability to contribute to a meaningful cause, whilst simultaneously gaining and advancing their own knowledge and expertise.

Such successes have been witnessed outside the domain of astronomy, including projects which ask volunteers to identify wild life within the Serengeti, listening to the sounds of Whales, or the discovery and identification of cancerous cells for medical prognosis with Cell Slider. Underpinning all these citizen science projects is the amazing work of the Zooniverse team, which along with their Zooniverse citizen science Web platform, provide the foundations to kick-start a project off. Over the last 5 months, SOCIAM researchers have been given the opportunity to work closely with the Zooniverse team in order start to analyse this Web phenomenon, asking questions about user participation and engagement in order to answer the bigger question of how does the social machine of citizen science function.

To date, our research into citizen science through the lens of the Zooniverse platform has provided us with some very exciting findings in respect to the interaction and activities of citizen scientists. By studying such a rich dataset, we have been to witness how project domain helps shape user participation, and how citizen scientists develops expert knowledge, and most impressively, how the wisdom of the crowd functions as a project evolves. In line with other research in SOCIAM. we have also been gaining deep insight into the design and deployment of citizen science projects, with a particular interest into how does one create a socio-technical system that encourages and sustains participation of people.

Unlike recent articles posting about citizen science as activity for 'online gaming', our studies, as well as others (Bowser 2012; Iacovides 2013) are finding that the gamification of citizen science is not only wrongly defining the purpose of these systems, but also harmful to their participation and success. Studies (Raddick et al. 2010, 2013) have shown that the core community of citizen scientists are far from the online gamers described in such articles, they are a community of individuals who which spend many hours discussing, classifying and helping others. As our work continues to develop, we are looking at methods to better understand how citizen scientists behave, and how teams like Zooniverse can continue to attract and sustain a dedicated user base.


  • A. Bowser, D. Hansen, J. Preece, Gamifying Citizen Science: Lessons and Future Directions, Gamification Research Network, CHI2013
  • Iacovides. I, Jennett. C, Cornish-Trestrail. C, and Cox.L. A. 2013. Do games attract or sustain engagement in citizen science?: a study of volunteer motivations. In CHI '13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI EA '13). ACM, New York, NY, USA
  • M. J. Raddick, G. Bracey, P. L. Gay, C. J. Lintott, P. Murray, K. Schawinski, A. S. Szalay, and J. Vandenberg, “Galaxy Zoo: Exploring the Motivations of Citizen Science Volunteers,” Astron. Educ. Rev., vol. 9, no. 1, 2010.
  • J. Raddick, C. Lintott, and S. Bamford, “Galaxy Zoo: Motivations of Citizen Scientists,” Astron. Educ. Rev., pp. 1–41, 2013.