So far, we have shown that the discussion about definitions of citizen science demonstrates the importance of reflecting on the boundaries of citizen science and makes it even more obvious that actors in citizen science – including policymakers, funding agencies, scientific communities, and practitioners – need to make transparent what they mean when talking about citizen science.
Definitions in Different Contexts
Definitions can have different functions, and they need to take into account the respective roles of those who provide a definition and the objectives in establishing the definition. The Austrian example showed the necessity of defining quality criteria in the operationalisation of citizen science as a starting point for further discussion. From this example, we have learned that definitions can be perceived as boundaries that are exclusive. Yet, they can also empower actors to create an identity within these boundaries, just as the Austrian citizen science community has done. Additionally, boundaries can also help to formulate transitions. Without definitions or characteristics, citizen science risks becoming an arbitrary term. Actors with an implicitly different understanding or conceptualisation of citizen science might fail in communication and collaboration due to misunderstandings. Ultimately, the citizen science community – including citizen science practitioners, researchers on citizen science, and funding bodies – risks becoming assailable in their work if the term citizen science is not characterised.
When developing, implementing, or adopting citizen science initiatives, a common understanding developed amongst the relevant stakeholders would be enough to identify the influencing factors and preconditions that facilitate the development of citizen science practices in given contexts, even if to reach such common understanding different definitions are used. It is with this spirit that a mapping of definitions against intended objectives, actors, and contexts could help practitioners in identifying and agreeing up front on a common understanding of the initiative to be carried out collectively and the pathway to follow for its development.
More recently, Manzoni et al. (2019) have conveyed the need to investigate opportunities and barriers concerning upscaling and spreading citizen science projects. Along these lines, recent research studies commissioned by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission (Ideas for a Change, forthcomingFootnote 2) identify a few important drivers when developing citizen science initiatives that are even more fundamental when talking about spreading in different contexts and scaling them at different geographical levels. These are, namely, demonstrating the usefulness, value, and benefits with respect to the matter of concern addressed by the initiative, its alignment to legal norms and social values, the ease of being understood, knowledge and resource sharing, and, last but not least, the narrative behind it and the communication material used to promote it.
All in all, we observe that even the definitions used by different European countries are not exclusive but rather complementary. These definitions are a mixture – starting with a more general and open defnition, which are complemented by more specific ones, when contextualisation is needed. From this example, we can take that there are no standalone definitions, but rather multiple combinations depending on the scale of contextualisation needed. The higher the contextualisation, the higher the mixture of definitions and criteria, in order to come to a dedicated one serving that specific context.
Table 2.2 attempts to map the different definitions identified in Table 2.1, by using a matrix based on a stepwise approach: first by grouping the definitions according to the different contexts – political, scientific, societal. These are then used to identify a second level, which is around what the definition is used for (e.g. fundraising, policymaking, awareness, scientific advances, community challenges). We also identify who is expected to be impacted by each group of definitions.
Through this mapping exercise, we can see the types of definitions that can be used according to different objectives, depending on the roles of the different stakeholders that the definition is aimed at and those who are creating it.
The mapping, of course, depends very much on deciding what is the centre of gravity in each definition and matching it with the focus of the specific contexts. As this process is subjective, other interpretations are possible. In addition, the same definition can be mapped against different contexts and objectives, depending on the openness of the definition itself (although here they are linked to one context for the sake of clarity).
Through this initial mapping, we argue that even a limited subset of existing definitions covers all three identified contexts quite well, their descriptions address the objectives of the intended actions within the contexts, and the different stakeholders can identify themselves in terms of roles and values.
Learning from the Plurality of Definitions
In this chapter, we have explored the complexity of defining what citizen science is. We have done so by drawing out differences between organisations, countries, understandings, and stages of development of citizen science in a given place.
The diversified use of citizen science definitions clearly indicates that there is not a single definition that is used for all cases. We can see that there are different starting points and a number of criteria for defining citizen science around Europe, each with their own focus according to different contexts and objectives.
In this context, the COST survey mentioned above represents a snapshot of different practice developments in European countries. In some countries, citizen science is already a well-known concept, and more or less concrete understandings of citizen science have been developed (e.g. Germany, Austria); in other countries the community is starting to organise and exploring, adjusting, and implementing existing concepts of citizen science in their respective understandings (e.g. Lithuania, Denmark). This can be seen also with the ECSA 10 Principles of Citizen Science, which the Australian Citizen Science Association adjusted for their own needs. Some countries follow a top-down approach, where projects are defined by scientific communities or government agencies; other countries follow bottom-up, co-created approaches when a common challenge needs to be addressed by local communities. Also, sometimes the ownership, production, and use of data are the focal points for reaching a common understanding of what citizen science is. Consequently, the definition of citizen science varies from country to country and from community to community.
The development of definitions has no endpoint, and throughout the activities of the COST Action, we observed the continuous development of understandings and definitions. These definitions are instrumental to the purpose of the action and reflect the culture underpinning the specificity of the different contexts in which they are applied. Nevertheless, equally importantly, all of them try to address ‘how’ and ‘to what extent’ citizens are involved and participate in science.
It is also important to note that, currently, at international policy level – both in the United Nations system and in the European Commission – citizen science is seen as being part of a wider process called citizen-generated data processes and practices, thereby opening up the possibility of a much wider definition with respect to citizen science going forward. Also, great economic value is being attributed to this emerging source of data, in addition to scientific and social values, as a result of a collective intelligence effort. This development and the higher awareness of the role of information and the precious contribution from society pave the way for the increasing importance of a stronger and more relevant evidence-based policy formulation and implementation.