A survey by the EU’s Joint Research Centre gives insights into citizen science projects and how they manage data. It recommends steps to boost their input to institutional research and policy-making.
Citizens have long carried out scientific research, especially in environmental and ecological sciences, producing potentially valuable data. How can these results be preserved for future research? And could policy-making use this data more extensively? To answer these questions, more needs to be known about the scope and data management practices of citizen science projects.
The Joint Research Centre (JRC) surveyed projects worldwide from 13 July to 4 September 2015 to find out more about these areas. The survey was set up as an open call via Citizen Science associations, European Commission departments and other organisations and projects. In response, 121 projects submitted information through an EUSurvey. The rich set of results gives insights into how citizen science projects currently operate.
Responding projects were mostly in environmental research – 84 % – unsurprising as citizen science is already an established concept in this field. Other fields use citizen research but term it differently and so were less likely to respond. However, the remaining projects included a wide range of other topics. Citizen science also seems well-suited to operational projects – projects studying ready-for-use ideas or techniques. This accounted for almost all projects, leaving experimental-stage projects in a minority.
Regarding the geographic scope of projects, this ranged from neighbourhood to continental level, showing the potential for citizen science to provide different scales of data. Varying timescales were covered too, with more than half of the projects set up to run for over four years.
One encouraging finding was that citizen scientists are very open to sharing their results, increasing their ability to contribute to research and policy. Nearly all projects provided access to raw or aggregated data, usually as open data and mostly as downloads from remote servers. Indeed, for 60 % of projects, data access was maintained after their end. The data itself was also prepared with an eye to the reliability and good ethical standards necessary for potential re-use – four fifths of projects checked data quality, while three quarters asked for data-use consent.
Another essential element is discoverability. Although 68 % of projects added persistent identifiers to their data, barely half provided data through catalogues or search engines, suggesting that citizen scientists need to be more aware of various methods of sharing their outcomes.
The results themselves have to remain available, and structured data management can help. Over 60 % of projects had data management plans in place – which were also linked to metadata use. Stronger promotion of such plans could further reduce the risk of losing valuable results. A more striking need is for greater knowledge about re-use licences. Less than a third of projects granted licences that gave the re-use they intended.
Good data management also seemed to be linked to projects’ source of funding – as were some topics. This could allow projects at risk of poor data management to be targeted for support. Overall, funding came from a wide range of sources. National grants funded around a third of projects and EU grants one fifth, while in-kind contributions and donations funded over half.
The survey has started a global conversation about citizen science data management, says the JRC. Its analysis of the results calls for best practices to be promoted, along with more collaboration between projects and fields, and suggests topics for further investigation.