Citizen science and open science: a complex relationship!

The majority of cases of citizen science studied are based, on the one hand, on the capacities and commitment of citizens and, on the other, on recognition by the scientist and researcher of the potential value of the knowledge that these citizens can produce or possess. We can identify two degrees of the commitment, mobilisation and impact of citizens. The first degree concerns the mobilisation and commitment of hundreds or thousands of data collectors. Professional researchers understand that these citizen communities permit the attainment of a critical mass of observations that would be impossible to achieve if the source were restricted to only scientists. The observations of butterflies, stars or fish are famous examples producing significant results. This first degree of commitment is not trivial. For most citizens, it will admittedly be a hobby, but a “serious” hobby involving a task of systematic and continuous observation and information processing and thus adherence to an epistemic scientific culture.

A higher degree of commitment, mobilisation and impact implies that citizens have not only a status of information collectors but are capable of formulating hypotheses and research strategies and are able to acquire a certain legitimacy to do so in the eyes of scientists. The case of mountain guides having discussions with the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Switzerland is a good illustration of this (Foray, 2012), just like, of course, situations of dialogues and exchanging of views between researchers and the parents of children suffering from genetic diseases (Rabeharisoa and Callon, 2002). This second degree is obviously far more demanding in terms of commitment and capacity and no doubt concerns primarily those who have a vital interest in identifying scientific solutions in the face of the problems confronting them (the guide confronted with the dangers of snow, the parent with the illness of their child, the inhabitant of an environment polluted or disrupted by a particular chemical agent).

I therefore think that this is definitely an interesting and beneficial trend – likely to contribute to the growth of research productivity, new knowledge production as well as greater social cohesion regarding science and its challenges.

And yet there is also cause for concern if the following scenario became reality: a citizen science that is autonomous detached from existing scientific institutions and claiming its “science” status, which could entitle it to gain access to financing and other public support mechanisms.

This is a worrying scenario as a citizen science that is autonomous as it were – separate from institutional researchers and scientists – would fail to comply with the point which in my opinion is the most crucial – the participation and contribution of researchers to what is called “open science” (Dasgupta and David, 1994).

Let’s make the following experiment – we have on one side a traditional, standard laboratory with its university team in a specialised chemical domain and on the other a team of intelligent, hard-working people, who are not professional scientists but have degrees in chemistry and have ordered on the internet all the equipment and material necessary to conduct chemical experiments in their garage or attic. What is the fundamental difference between these two teams? Talent? Certainly not. Scientific approach and methods? Maybe – but that’s not even certain. What differentiates them is that university researchers, by virtue of their professional commitment, have accepted to follow and contribute to certain principles – which have been known since Merton (1973) and then Dasgupta and David (1994) as open science norms: to i) rapidly and completely disclose results and data via seminars, publications, other types of exchange, ii) accept the judgment of peers, who will be able to verify each of the experiments, and possibly reproduce them, and iii) contribute reciprocally to the verification and replication of results obtained by others within the framework of the peer review.

Such unique behaviours and commitments are made possible by the so-called “priority-based reward system” (ibid.), which encourages prompt disclosure and provides a transparent means for access by future scientists to the body of knowledge in a particular area.

Indeed, it is thanks to these open science mechanisms that science is cumulative, that everyone can build on the results and discoveries of others and thus that scientific research productivity has been so incredibly strong since these mechanisms have been put in place.

Satisfying the norms of open science is a matter of a certain scientific ethic that leads each person to adopt cooperative behaviours, even in the context of harsh competition. Of course, there is abuse and bad behaviour in terms of non-disclosure or retention of certain information, but as Cockburn et al. (2010) tell us: the most surprising thing is in fact that there is so little of that while these norms are really very restrictive and yet entail no formal or legal obligation. “Most scientists place a high degree of weight on the maintenance of their reputations and behave in ways that protect those reputations and promote the transparency and priority rules for scientific research.

Let’s return to our experiment. Who says that the team of talented citizen chemists – a citizen science that has become autonomous – will conform to these norms? The cost of conforming to them is very high (too high?) and I think a priori that this citizen science detached from institutions will not conform to these norms … the results – perhaps valid – obtained by our team of citizen chemists will remain “in the cellar“ or will be diffused in YouTube videos that will in no way meet the criteria we have described.

This failure to conform – and even if the results are interesting – leads to the loss of positive externalities, the external benefits that are the raison d’être of open science – and at the same time we lose the most important reason for public financing (QED – this is basic microeconomics).

I am delighted about the advent of citizen science – coordinated by institutional researchers who are sufficiently intelligent and receptive to understand all the benefits of this new form of research organisation (R&D productivity, new and different knowledge, social cohesion) AND who by definition are committed to contributing to open science. What worries me is the idea of a citizen science detached from this institutional science, which would work in its corner as it were and therefore fail to fulfil the essential criteria of open science. It would almost certainly fail since these criteria are definitely not easy to satisfy by professional non-scientists.

If a funding agency were confronted with requests to finance projects including groups of citizens or from groups of autonomous citizens, I suggest the following decision table regarding the eligibility of these proposals.


Institutional science

Status quo

Institutional science as connected to citizen science

Should get a bonus in proposal ratings (cost saving, social cohesion)

Autonomous citizen science with a commitment to open science

Eligible but what kind of ex ante criteria to secure the commitment? Data management plan?

Citizen science with no commitment to open science

Not eligible for funding



Cockburn, I., Stern, S. and Zausner, J., 2010, “Finding the endless frontier – lessons from the life sciences innovation system for energy R&D”, in Accelerating innovation in energy – Insights from multiple sectors, University of Chicago Press

Dasgupta, P. and David, P.A., 1994, “Towards a new economics of science”, Research Policy, vol. 23, 5

Foray, D., 2012, “The fragility of experiential knowledge”, Handbook of Knowledge and Economics, Edward Elgar

Merton, R., 1973, The sociology of science – theoretical and empirical investigations, University of Chicago Press

Rabeharisoa, V. and Callon, M., 2002, “L’engagement des associations de malade dans la recherché”, Revue Internationale des Sciences Sociales, 171