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Citizen Science: Why Now?

Citizen Science Why now?There’s nothing new under the sun. It is far from being a scientific claim, but, putting forward broader, historical perspectives, it sounded like a good first sentence to start the workshop Getting Involved: Citizen Science and Library Resources held on October 29, 2020 in the New Brunswick Libraries Science Workshop Series as we were set to convince attendees why we should pay attention to citizen science in these days at Rutgers.

First on the agenda was What is citizen science?, not a simple topic. Before turning it over to Jenny to define citizen science, I couldn’t help stating the obvious, i.e., that the concept of lay contribution to scholarship had been around for quite a while even though new initiatives brought it into the spotlight in the past decade or so. Clouding the definition of citizen science is the terminology confusion resulting from well established, similar related practices. We all use Wikipedia and understand how it works after all. Genealogy research, large-scale, voluntary genetic testing, or national healthcare data collection initiatives all encourage public participation crowdsourcing certain elements of research. Or, as a perceptive workshop participant inquired, fact checking media communication by the masses, contributes largely to science communication.

Clearly, we are not alone with this confusion. An article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2019 attempted to provide a definition from a broad perspective, opening a discussion on basic criteria, such as collaboration and communication, scientific standards, ethics, data management, and open access publishing.

A rather simplistic way to break down the concept of citizen science is to focus on some key elements related to various levels and forms of voluntary lay participation in scholarly activities spearheaded by a credentialed scholar with the goal to incorporate the knowledge, experience, and values of communities into the process of producing knowledge. Speaking of the process, I strongly believe one of the greatest advantages of these projects is that they teach us to focus on the process rather than the goal itself. During that process participants can acquire new, marketable skills, while experimenting with new areas that are important to them.

We may also disagree on the coverage of the term citizen science. Some would argue that it embraces scholarship in general, rather than just natural sciences. Others will admit that valuable citizen science projects exist in the humanities and social sciences, whether in the form of transcribing manuscripts or benefiting from the power of interdisciplinarity.

cover artThe citizen part of the phrase obviously highlights the participation. But it also suggests “by and for” citizens, referring to similar concepts such as participatory design in Landscape Architecture or engaging community projects in plant sciences or environmental science here at Rutgers.

Libraries are uniquely positioned to support citizen science, not only with their resources, but also spreading the word as our workshop did. New Brunswick Libraries also host great projects and workshops in the digital humanities for our students.

Many departments at Rutgers focus on providing students with translatable skills that can be directly used at the current job market. This pragmatic approach is most prominent at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, where community engaged learning and research is part of the school’s mission. Examples include the living labs, community-based projects, and more. The cooperative extensions have been doing outreach for a long time, such as youth programs. SEBS/NJAES would be perfect place to look for projects if an instructor wants to incorporate one in the curriculum or if a student or a student group is really looking for a meaningful community-based initiative.

Developing the collection of Rutgers-based projects for the research guide, we were truly humbled by the SEBS/NJAES faculty and staff who reached out to us and brought various projects to our attention.

So why get involved now? Without getting into politics, we can claim that science is important. It’s more important than ever to introduce science into the everyday discourse and public thinking. Creating communities has not been more important than in these days. In the absence of the possibility to participate in activities with friends and family safely, here is a second best: virtual activities that have the potential to provide the missing sense of community through shared experiences.

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