The controversy over the term ‘citizen science’

CBC News: “The term citizen science has been around for decades. Its original definition, coined in the 1990s, refers to institution-guided projects that invite the public to contribute to scientific knowledge in all kinds of ways, from the cataloguing of plants, animals and insects in people’s backyards to watching space.

Anyone is invited to participate in citizen science, regardless of whether they have an academic background in the sciences, and every year these projects number in the thousands. 

Recently, however, some large institutions, scientists and community members have proposed replacing the term citizen science with “community science.” 

Those in favour of the terminology change — such as eBird, one of the world’s largest biodiversity databases — say they want to avoid using the word citizen. They do so because they want to be “welcoming to any birder or person who wants to learn more about bird watching, regardless of their citizen status,” said Lynn Fuller, an eBird spokesperson, in a news release earlier this year. 

Some argue that while the intention is valid, the term community science already holds another definition — namely projects that gather different groups of people around environmental justice focused on social action. 

To add to the confusion, renaming citizen science could impact policies and legislation that have been established in countries such as the U.S. and Canada to support projects and efforts in favour of citizen science. 

For example, if we suddenly decided to call all species of birds “waterbirds,” then the specific meaning of this category of bird species that lives on or around water would eventually be lost. This would, in turn, make communication between people and the various fields of science incredibly difficult. 

A paper published in Science magazine last month pointed out some of the reasons why rebranding citizen science in the name of inclusion could backfire. 

Caren Cooper, a professor of forestry and environmental resources at North Carolina State University and one of the authors of the paper, said that the term citizen science didn’t originally mean to imply that people should have a certain citizenship status to participate in such projects. 

Rather, citizen science is meant to convey the idea of responsibilities and rights to access science. 

She said there are other terms being used to describe this meaning, including “public science, participatory science [and] civic science.”

Chris Hawn, a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and one of Cooper’s co-authors, said that being aware of the need for change is a good first step, but any decision to rename should be made carefully….(More)”.