Engaging the Crowds

The ‘Engaging the Crowds’ project is a collaboration between Horizon at the University of Nottingham, led by Dr Liz Dowthwaite with Dr Robert HoughtonDr Alexa Spence, and the Zooniverse at the University of Oxford. The aim of this research is to understand public participation in online/virtual citizen science from a psychological perspective, allowing future projects to engage their volunteers in ethical and effective ways to increase project success.

Citizen science has great potential for both producing scientific results and engaging the public in science. Focusing on online citizen science where members of the public contribute to large-scale data analysis through an online platform, this work aims to provide a deep understanding of volunteer motivation and experiences, to help those running projects to engage their volunteers in the most effective way. Particularly in the current pandemic, with many people unable to leave their homes to take part in activities, online citizen science can be a rewarding way to pass the time, a volunteer activity that can be done from the comfort of our own homes.

This work extends existing work on motivation, by examining whether and how taking part in online citizen science can contribute towards the fulfilment of our psychological needs. Using Self-determination Theory (SDT), especially sub-theories of basic need satisfaction and goal contents theory, the work examines the relationship between motivation, behaviour, and underlying needs. SDT relates intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to satisfaction of universal basic psychological needs: autonomy (freedom to act as desired), relatedness (connection with others), and competence (the ability to carry out an action effectively). This provides potential psychological grounding for understanding citizen science participation, as volunteers are likely to be drawn to projects that satisfy their underlying needs. It is also necessary to consider the wider impact that participation in citizen science has upon the participant. Increased engagement with citizen science may promote related actions, including further participation in projects, and additional scientific or community activities.

A large scale online questionnaire has been carried out with Zooniverse volunteers, achieving 2,500 participants. They were asked about their participation in Zooniverse, their motivations for doing so, their experiences on the platform related to their psychological needs, and their intentions to continue to contribute. The behavioural data from their participation in projects has also been collected from 1,800 of these participants. Combining survey results with actual behaviour across different project and task types, enables us to identify the most positive and effective forms of engagement with citizen science, as well as identifying potential barriers to participation.

The first paper to come out of this work is currently being written up, grounding volunteer engagement in solid psychological theory, to understand how taking part in online citizen science can be beneficial to the volunteer as well as to the researchers running projects.

This work contributes to the development of a framework for understanding the psychological basis for participation. We are also investigating further applications of this work, and how citizen science practitioners can use this knowledge and apply the findings to a live project.