What does it mean to be a citizen scientist? – 1

Categories: Instruction, Other, Research, Teaching, Tools and Resources


April 13 is Citizen Science Day. To learn more about this area of research practice I interviewed citizen scientists Jim Salmons and Timlynn Babitsky. I’m sharing the interview in three parts. First we’ll explore and define what it means to be a citizen scientist. In the next posts, we’ll learn about Jim and Timlynn’s research and observations about citizen science careers. (And in case you are wondering, yes, we are related! Jim is my cousin.)

Q. We are seeing new names to describe people whose research and scholarly work is done outside of higher education institutions such as alt-ac and independent researchers. What differentiates citizen scientists from the others? 

JS. To your specific terminological points, #CitizenScientists might be considered a subset of the group known as “independent researchers.” In the past, non-credentialed and non-affiliated scientists and historians had the pejorative adjective, “amateur”, added as a qualifier. As least we have grown beyond that terminology. I guess you could say that “Citizen Scientist” is today’s politically correct way to say “amateur scientist or historian.” In many ways today’s #CitizenScientist is subject to the same challenges of our so-called amateur kindred spirits of times past.

Q. You differentiate citizen scientists from those who contribute to citizen science projects. Can you explain?

TB. As a relatively recent social phenomenon, there is a great deal of confusion in the vocabulary used to describe the public’s involvement in scientific research projects. The term citizen scientist is fraught with a range of mis-applications. Members of the public who assist large scale field studies by collecting data, identifying images, sampling water in lakes and streams, etc., are not usually in themselves “scientists” involved in all aspects of the scientific research project.  They gather data, perhaps help with an experiment, but usually do not construct the hypothesis, analyze the data, and draw the research conclusions. In that sense, they are research assistants, not scientists. Unfortunately, in the popular vernacular – they are named by the media, and often by themselves as citizen scientists

True citizen scientists, as I see it, are members of the public who are involved in the full range of research activities, and are engaged in designing and conducting studies. They can work independently or in collaboration with other scientists, whether they are citizen scientists or scientists associated with academic or other research institutions.

Q. A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences aligns with your points. They differentiate between contributor, collaborator, or co-creator roles in citizen science. So, to be clear and accurate, just as we distinguish between a researcher and a subject or research participant, it is important to distinguish between citizen scientists who are co-creators or conduct their own research, and others who contribute to citizen science projects?

JS.  Yes, exactly. Our “mission” is to bring #CitizenScientists into their own right rather than being erroneously assumed to be simply any member of the public who participates in a #CitizenScience project. Honestly, following our cancer battles, we became determined to be Citizen Scientists as part of our #PayItForward Bonus Rounds of Life. The more we grew into this role and experienced the challenges of non-traditional participation in our research community, the more we felt the need to add the “advocate for the emerging community of Citizen Scientists” as a facet of our research activity.

Q. How do citizen scientists stay up-to-date and engaged in their respected fields?

TB. Through deep personal interest, develop a wide and deep knowledge about some field of interest through self-study, and development of a Personal Learning Network (#PLN) of experts with whom they communicate, and perhaps seek informal mentorship on their personal learning journey.

JS.  I don’t think we can over-emphasize the distinction of Citizen Scientists having and using a #PLN, Personal Learning Network. When we approached the EU-based Time Machine Project about our interest in becoming involved as non-European Citizen Scientists, Steering Committee member Andreas Maier asked us, “How many of you are there and how do your recognize them?” We replied that an accurate count was not likely available, but if it were, we believe that a tell-tale sign of a self-described Citizen Scientist will be that they will have and, without hesitation, tell you who is in their #PLN and what value they get from these mentoring relationships that can easily grow into active collaborations.

Q. In what fields or disciplines are citizen scientists most active?

JS. I can only give my subjective experience and personal thoughts. I believe that you will find the highest participation of #CitizenScientists, and #CitizenHistorians for that matter, in the #DigitalHumanities domain where unimaginably huge quantities of source material are now widely and freely available in digital form through on-line archives and digital libraries. This is especially true in the narrower domain of text- and data-mining of print magazines and newspapers which is where our research is focused.


Timlynn Babitsky

Timlynn spent her early career in education in the US and Kyoto Japan before heading to graduate studies at UC Irvine and focus on social network analysis. Research she engaged in with the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCI is often requested today at ResearchGate. Through the rural economic work of Sohodojo, Timlynn was recruited as the Executive Director of the North American Rural Futures Institute, where she was instrumental in wind power development in North Central Montana.

Jim Salmons

A #CitizenScientist involved in applied research at the intersection of #DigitalHumanities and #MachineLearning. Jim began his career in software design and development and marketing at the dawn of the microcomputer and digital age as chronicled in the “journalistic amber” of the 48 issues of Softalk Magazine.

Together (Jim & Timlynn)

After meeting in the doctoral program in Mathematical Social Sciences at UC Irvine, Jim and Timlynn became intimately involved in the development of Smalltalk and object-oriented programming culminating with their involvement in executive consulting positions in IBM’s Object Technology Practice. They left IBM at the dawn of the New Millennium to launch Sohodojo, an Open Source R&D lab in support of decentralized and distributed small business networks as a means of community and business development in rural and distressed urban communities.

Learn more about citizen science and citizen scientists:

Citizen Science Day events and activities. Follow #citizenscience.

Citizen Science Theory & Practice (CSTP) is an open-access, peer-reviewed journal sponsored by the Citizen Science Association. The journal seeks to advance the field of citizen science by providing a central space for scholarly exchanges about engaging the public in multiple scientific disciplines. Authors and readers include citizen science practitioners, researchers, evaluators, and funders, regardless of their specific disciplines. See the Special Collection on Ethical Issues.

Learning Through Citizen Science: Enhancing Opportunities by Design (2018) Consensus Report from the National Academies Press

Learning Through Citizen Science: Enhancing Opportunities by Design
on SAGE Social Science Space

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