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Motivations and Engagement in Citizen Science by Dr. Charlene Jennett

 Motivations and Engagement in Citizen Science

Post by Dr. Charlene Jennett

One of our goals in Citizen Cyberlab is to understand volunteers’ motivations for why they take part in citizen science projects. We hope to use this information to help us make our own citizen science projects as motivating and engaging as possible.

Recently Raddick et al. (2013) conducted a survey study with nearly 11,000 volunteers of Galaxy Zoo, an online astronomy project. Their results show that nearly 40% of volunteers’ primary motivation is a desire to contribute to scientific research. These results have important implications for designers of citizen science projects, as they lead us to think about questions such as ‘What are the best ways to communicate to volunteers that they are making a contribution to science?’ and ‘How can we ensure that volunteers feel like their contribution is being valued?’


Another key research study is Rotman et al. (2012). They present a motivational framework based on their research with volunteers of ecological citizen science projects; this research included a mixture of survey data (142 volunteers) and interview data (18 volunteers). In their framework they explain that volunteers are motivated by a complex framework of factors that dynamically change over time. These results have important implications for designers of citizen science projects, as they lead us to think about questions such as ‘How can we identify the pivotal moments that a person is shifting in their motivations?’ and ‘When a volunteer is experiencing a loss in motivation, what can we do to help make the project more engaging?’

A further topic of interest for us is ‘gamification’ – the use of game design elements in non-game contexts. Iacovides et al. (2013) conducted an interview study with 8 volunteers of citizen science games (4 from Foldit, 4 from Eyewire). Their results revealed that game elements and communication tools may help to sustain volunteers’ engagement over time, by allowing volunteers to participate in a range of social interactions and by recognizing their achievements as meaningful.

Another key research paper on this topic is Bowser et al. (2013). They explain that gamifying a citizen science project could potentially make the project more engaging; however there are also many challenges in doing this. For example, how can designers ensure that gamification does not have an adverse effect on data quality? These are important challenges that we will need to consider when designing our own citizen science projects.


Creativity in Citizen Science

Despite creativity being a concept that is often referred to in citizen science, it is yet to be formally defined or studied. One of our goals in Citizen Cyberlab is to understand the different kinds of creativity that people experience in citizen science. We hope to use this information to help us make our own citizen science projects as creatively stimulating as possible.

Recently we published a workshop paper where we described our initial understanding of creativity in citizen science (Jennett et al., 2013). We identify two kinds of creativity – ‘imaginative self-expression’ and ‘solving project problems’ – and we suggest that a good project community is important for encouraging creativity in citizen science. In our future work, we hope to develop this understanding further, so that we can understand more about volunteers’ creative processes in citizen science.

When considering how to design interfaces to support creativity, a key research paper is Schneiderman (2007). Schneiderman presents several general principles for designing creativity support tools in the research field of HCI (human-computer interaction). Examples include supporting exploratory search, enabling collaboration and proving rich history-keeping. The next step for us is to figure out to what extent these principles apply to the context of citizen science, and how can we utilize this knowledge in order to design citizen sciences projects that support creativity.


Bowser, A., Hansen, D. and Preece, J. (2013). Gamifying citizen science: Lessons and future directions. ‘Designing gamification: Creating gameful and playful experiences’, workshop at CHI 2013.

Iacovides, I., Jennett, C. Cornish-Trestrail, C. and Cox, A. L. (2013). Do games attract or sustain engagement in citizen science?: A study of volunteers motivations. Proceedings of CHI Extended Abstracts 2013, ACM Press, 1101-1106.

Jennett, C., Eveleigh, A., Mathieu, K., Zoya, A. and Cox, A. L. (2013). Creativity in citizen cyber-science: All for one and one for all. ‘Creativity and attention in the age of the web’, workshop at ACM Web Science 2013.

Raddick, M. J., Bracey, G., Gay, P. L., Lintott, C. J., Cardamone, C., Murray, P. and Vandenberg, J. (2013). Galaxy Zoo: Motivations of citizen scientists. Astronomy Education Review. In Press.

Rotman, D., Preece, J., Hammock, J., Procita, K., Hansen, D., Parr, C., Lewis, D. and Jacobs, D. (2012). Dynamic changes in motivation in collaborative citizen-science projects. Proceedings of CSCW 2012, ACM Press, 217-226.

Schneiderman, B. (2007). Creativity support tools: Accelerating discovery and innovation. Communications of the ACM, 50 (12), 20-13.


About Diana Mastracci

PhD student at UCL Engineering. Member of the Extreme Citizen Science Research group & Citizen Cyberlab an EU funded project which is building digital tools and online collaborative platforms for Citizen Science. Currently a visiting researcher at the Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE) at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. @Dmastracci



  1. Pingback: Citizen Science News Roundup | Citizen Science CenterCitizen Science Center - September 27, 2013

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