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 Houghton, Dr 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.

Whilst citizen science has great potential for both producing scientific results and engaging the public in science, there are issues surrounding attracting and retaining diverse populations of volunteers. This work aims to address barriers to public participation in citizen science through deep understanding of volunteer motivation and behaviours, to help those running projects to engage their volunteers in the most effective way. Focusing on online citizen science where members of the public contribute to large-scale data analysis through an online platform, the work will extend and enhance existing work on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation by examining the interaction between different motivations, psychological needs, and behaviour. Research will combine survey results with behavioural data from users across a wide range of projects of different subjects and task types.

The results will ground volunteer engagement in solid psychological theory, with the aim to lead to future work investigating how citizen science practitioners can use this knowledge and apply the findings to a live project. It will contribute to development of a framework for understanding the psychological basis for participation.

 The Theory

Using Self-determination Theory (SDT), especially sub-theories of basic need satisfaction and goal contents theory, and psychological distance, the work will examine 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 impact that participation in citizen science has upon the participant. Increased engagement with a scientific topic is likely to reduce psychological distance to that topic by making it more concrete and tangible. Reduced psychological distance as a result of engaging with citizen science may promote related actions, including further participation in projects, and additional scientific or community activities. The theoretical relationship between psychological distance and motivation remains unclear, and the impact of engaging with citizen science on psychological distance has not been explored. Therefore this work will explore these relationships and examine how they relate to engaging and retaining participants in citizen science. Combined with actual behaviour across different project and task types, the work will identify the most positive and effective forms of engagement with citizen science, as well as identifying and resolving barriers to participation.