Posted: January 7, 2021 at 11:00 am

Citizen Science is the backbone of Swim Drink Fish. Let’s take a deep dive into what Citizen Science really is, and why we at Swim Drink Fish advocate so strongly for it.

1. What is Citizen Science?

Citizen Science, also called community or public science, has many definitions. This is because Citizen Science takes many different forms. The common trait amongst all its definitions is that it is science conducted by individuals without professional science training. Citizen Scientists can be involved in any aspect of the scientific process, from creating the question or hypothesis to project design, to collecting and analyzing data.

2. The history of Citizen Science

The earliest recorded (but unofficial) Citizen Science project may have occurred as early as 205 B.C.- 3500 years ago in China. Local citizens affected by locust spread started tracking migratory locusts in China.

Since then, countless Citizen Science projects have contributed to groundbreaking scientific advances. One of the most popular and longest-running examples of a Citizen Science project is the Audubon Christmas Bird Count (currently on its 121st year) in North America. The bird count is the longest-running community science bird project in America, and it has resulted in over 300 peer-reviewed articles.

Many famed scientists are, in some ways, citizen scientists themselves. Consider Charles Darwin, Florence Merriam Bailey, JJ Audubon, or Alexander von Humboldt. Weren’t these naturalists just people interested in understanding the natural environment? While it might be simple to draw the line between ‘citizen’ and ‘professional’ scientists now that one can obtain a Masters or Ph.D., this line was not always so clear.

Even though Citizen Science has been going on for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the term ‘Citizen Science’ became popular.

Alan Irwin (a social scientist in the UK) coined the term Citizen Science as a way to democratize science and bring it back to the members of the community. At the same time, without knowing about Irwin’s definition, Rick Bonney (an ornithologist in the USA) used Citizen Science to describe non-professional scientist’s contributions to science through their local observations of nature.

3. Citizen Science today

Since Irwin and Bonney’s definitions of Citizen Science in the 1990s, the field has greatly expanded. Through technological advancements, citizen scientists are continuing to make revolutionary contributions to science. The development of apps like Gassy, online platforms like Water Rangers, and gaming systems like ColonyB have diversified the field. Citizen Scientists have discovered rare exoplanets through Zooniverse, new synthetic protein folding possibilities with Foldit, and have located numerous previously undiscovered or rare plant and animal species.

Current developments in Citizen Science are allowing us to get spatial data at an incredibly local scale that would be difficult to gather without the public’s help. Citizen scientists can get data from areas that are hard to reach or inaccessible to scientists. This means regions that scientists have previously overlooked can now be studied.

The local focus of Citizen Science empowers communities to respond to the small scale environmental injustices that they face, and contribute to a better understanding of our environment in a big way.

One of the fastest growing sectors of Citizen Science in Canada is community-based monitoring (CBM) programs—like our Citizen Science water monitoring hubs.

CBM programs allow community members to monitor their environment for pollution. Many CBM programs are created and powered by concerned citizens who are interested in understanding and protecting their local environment. CBM research is making great contributions to science. Through the Lake Windermere Project, locals collaborated with Wildsight to start a monitoring project that identified problems with the lake’s health.

The Swim Drink Fish Monitoring Hubs have contributed to science, policy and have helped make our waters safer and more enjoyable. CBM programs are changing the way we look at the role of science by integrating advocacy, conservation, and education with research.

4. Citizen Science and You

The data that goes into Swim Guide tells you when and where water quality passes the local standards for swimming. Some of this data is collected by citizen scientists at Water Monitoring Hubs across Canada. Awesome citizen scientist volunteers are outside collecting water samples and testing their quality in a lab every day. The results are uploaded to Swim Guide.

These volunteers are also water literacy leaders. While they sample the water, they are also asking questions and hypothesizing about what may be impacting the water’s health. Citizen scientists are contributing to conserving the Great lakes in a big way by identifying problems in the ecosystems. They’re also connecting people with water by giving Swim Guide users the information they need to get outside and visit their local waterbodies.

5. Citizens and Scientists: Ethics in Citizen Science

Data quality issues are one of the most commonly cited barriers to expanding citizen conducted science programs. Some professional scientists are hesitant to believe that the data collected by citizens is of good quality. However, there are many protocols in place that ensure citizen scientists are gathering high-quality data.

For example, at Swim Drink Fish Monitoring Hubs, data quality is ensured through strict sampling protocols, ample volunteer training, and in-lab and external quality assurance testing. Protocols like these show scientists that the data collected in citizen science-driven programs can be equally as valid as other methods of science.

On the other side of this argument, there are citizen scientists that worry about their relationship with professional scientists. There is a long history of distrust between scientists and public participants in scientific research. This distrust is based on a history of unethical usage of participants and non-transparent communication of scientific objectives. This distrust is especially valid for BIPOC and other marginalized communities that have a history of being treated unethically in science.

While Alan Irwin defines citizen science as a democratic approach to science, this may not always be the case. Research shows that citizen science groups are not proportionally diverse to the population, with BIPOC and low socioeconomic standing groups being underrepresented.

This lack of participation is commonly attributed to the fact that many research programs are not aligned with the motivations of BIPOC communities. Additionally, when citizen scientists are included in projects solely as ‘human sensors’ and are not involved in any other aspects of citizen science projects, existing power imbalances between scientists and marginalized communities are perpetuated.

Citizen Science is championed as a step towards more inclusive, diverse, and open science. But if those benefiting from citizen science are rarely those who are marginalized by scientific practices, then perhaps we need to reconsider how citizen science can benefit marginalized groups.

Groups like CEEJH lab based in Maryland USA and CLEAR lab in Newfoundland are excellent examples of proactive organizations responding to this problem. These groups focus on working with marginalized communities to solve relevant problems using citizen science methods. The citizen science projects done by these labs aims to have a direct impact on the participants they work with.

How can citizen science be made more inclusive? Some suggest a name change. The title ‘citizen science’ is not inclusive of those who are not citizens, and being a citizen is not a requirement for conducting citizen science! Changing the title to ‘community science’ reflects greater inclusivity. The word ‘community’ also serves as a reminder of citizen science’s collaborative nature.

In many ways, community-based projects are the most powerful and effective forms of citizen science.

What do you think about the term ‘citizen science’? How do you think the citizen science movement can become more inclusive? Let us know by reaching out to us at

Want to get involved in citizen science?

Become a Citizen (or Community) Scientist for one of the Monitoring Hubs in the 2021 season! To become a citizen scientist at one of the Ontario Water Monitoring Hubs, reach out to

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