Citizen Science

Dedicated to promoting best practices and standards that will improve the quality and expand the use of biodiversity data gathered by citizen scientists.


Image by Jordan Madrid


Initial members


Although natural history data have been collected by volunteers for centuries, there has been a recent resurgence in projects that rely on volunteers for data collection, correction, annotation, and transcription. These projects are often referred to as being “crowdsourced” — or tasked to “a group of people or a community through an open call” (1) — and the volunteers are referred to as “citizen scientists” — researchers working on “a primarily avocational basis” (2). These efforts take many forms including projects in which citizens put recording devices such as microphones and camera traps in the field, decode biodiversity data in the form of images (Floating forests, Snapshot Serengeti) or text (Notes from Nature, DigiVol, Atlas of Living Australia’s Cicada Expedition project), or share their field observations (eBird,, REEF and iNaturalist).

Citizen science is already having a large impact in the arena of biodiversity science because of the magnitude of data that citizen science has made available. For instance about 30% of the total observations in GBIF come from eBird alone and preliminary estimates suggest that 70% of all GBIF data are depended on citizen science efforts. These proportions are expected to grow because of the scale of the work that needs to be done.

Data collected by citizen scientists may have additional criteria to meet before they can be considered fit for use; however, these additional criteria remain under-explored. There is a need for best practices in curating these data to ensure that they are maximally reusable by researchers after they are collected.

The goals of this group are to explore the issues with citizen-collected biodiversity data, collaborate with other groups interested in citizen science data quality (DataONE, Citizen Science Association, Citizen Science Alliance, European Citizen Science Association, SciStarter, Citizen Science Central, etc.), and to produce documents describing “best practices” and standards for any aspect of citizen science data lifecycle.

The group’s Github repository will include an index of biodiversity-related Citizen Science projects, with special recognition of those that represent best-practices.

This Interest Group will liaise closely with related and overlapping TDWG Interest Groups, including the Taxonomic Names and Concepts Interest Group, Imaging, Annotations, Observations & Specimens, Data Quality, Technical Architecture and Vocabulary Documentation and Maintenance. It will also support Open Source and Creative Commons licensing wherever possible.


The blossoming of citizen science 1 around the world presents new opportunities for citizens and scientists to work together. Rapid advancements of technology, especially the internet and smart phones, have accelerated the adoption of the citizen science approach across a wide range of scientific disciplines. Hundreds of projects now focused gathering biodiversity data. The purpose of the Citizen Science Interest Group (citizen-science IG) is to foster informed collection and use of biodiversity data. The Citizen-science IG will facilitate the development and application of standards and best practices in partnership with our TDWG colleagues, citizen science managers and information scientists and host of other interested parties that may include biodiversity scientists, resource managers, indigenous groups, natural history museums, GBIF, government agencies, NGOs, etc.

This interest group will focus on the intersection between data gathering and social computing, the development of tools and feedback mechanisms that can be deployed across different citizen science applications, and the ways that new data generated from these projects can be seamlessly linked into existing resources and the broader network of biodiversity data, information and knowledge.

While citizen science has some clear advantages, such as operating on a much larger scale and bringing much greater effort to bear on a task when compared to traditional science approaches, it is still relatively new and thus still being refined. Citizens contribute in a variety of ways, but because their training is limited compared to professional scientists, the tasks they undertake, such as counting fish or transcribing text information, usually require less training and expertise than one expects from scientists. (This is not to say that citizen scientists cannot be experts as clearly some birders have more field skills than trained ornithologist who are often back in the lab sequencing DNA or analyzing eBird data). A logical consequence of this lack of training is that the use of common names is more palatable for citizens than using scientific names. Thus one of the clear tasks of the citizen-science IG is to develop a working group that can focus on standards for use of traditional taxonomic resources with common names resources, for maintaining and updating common names with purpose of trying to prevent the proliferation of common names. During its entire history TDWG and its members have been dealing with the complexities of scientific taxonomic system.

This lack of formal training and certification of citizen scientists means that quality of citizen science data is questioned by many. Thus a second clear challenge for the citizen science interest group is to work with the data quality interest group to include practices and standards that can be applied to citizen science data.

Becoming involved

Because citizen science projects often require a diverse group of organizers, this group welcomes participation from interested parties from the biological, educational, government resource agency, library, information science, and web and application development communities.

TDWG members interested in data annotation and observation standards are particularly encouraged to participate.

We recommend “watching” TDWG’s citizen-science GitHub repository to keep abreast of issues as they arise.

History and context

TDWG members have long been interested in citizen-science. A bioblitz was held at the 2010 Annual Conference in Woods Hole, MA. A citizen-science symposium or workshop has been held at every annual meeting since 2014. Now there are willing conveners and a critical number of participants to begin more formal discussions and documentation of how TDWG can shape best practices and develop standards for citizen science projects collecting and curating biodiversity data. Including citizen science among the best practices and standards developed by TDWG seems like a natural extension of TDWG’s existing work and builds from experience and strength.

Background references

  • Thessen, Anne E. David J. Patterson. Data issues in the life sciences ZooKeys 150: 15–51 (2011)
  • Chandler, M., See, L., Copas, K., Bonde, A.M., López, B.C., Danielsen, F., Legind, J.K., Masinde, S., Miller-Rushing, A.J., Newman, G. and Rosemartin, A., 2017. Contribution of citizen science towards international biodiversity monitoring. Biological Conservation, 213, pp. 280-294.
  • Bonney, R., Cooper, C.B., Dickinson, J., Kelling, S., Phillips, T., Rosenberg, K.V., Shirk, J., 2009. Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. Bioscience 59, 977–984.
  • Bonney, R., Shirk, J.L., Phillips, T.B., Wiggins, A., Ballard, H.L., Miller-Rushing, A.J., Parrish, J.K., 2014. Next steps for citizen science. Science 343, 1436–1437.
  • Groom, Q.,Weatherdon, L., Geijzendorffer, I.R., 2016. Is citizen science an open science in the case of biodiversity observations? J. Appl. Ecol.
  • Haklay, M., 2015. Citizen Science and Policy: A European Perspective (Case Study Series No. Vol. 4). Commons Lab.Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars,Washington, D.C.
  • Huntington, H.P., 2000. Using traditional ecological knowledge in science: methods and applications. Ecol. Appl. 10, 1270–1274.[1270:UTEKIS]2.0.CO;2
  • McKinley, D.C., Miller-Rushing, A., Ballard, R., Bonney, R., Brown, S., et al., 2016. Citizen science can improve conservation science, natural resource management, and environmental protection. Biological Conservation (In press)
  • Meyer, C., Kreft, H., Guralnick, R., Jetz,W., 2015. Global priorities for an effective information basis of biodiversity distributions. Nat. Commun. 6, 8221.
  • Michener,W.K., 2015. Ecological data sharing. Ecol. Inform. 29 (Part 1), 33–44.
  • Miller-Rushing, A., Primack, R., Bonney, R., 2012. The history of public participation in ecological research. Front. Ecol. Environ. 10, 285–290.
  • Mistry, J., Berardi, A., 2016. Bridging indigenous and scientific knowledge. Science 352, 1274–1275.
  • Nature, 2015. Rise of the citizen scientist. Nature 524, 265.
  • Peterson, A.T., Soberón, J., Krishtalka, L., 2015. A global perspective on decadal challenges and priorities in biodiversity informatics. BMC Ecol. 15, 15.
  • Shirk, J.L., Ballard, H.L., Wilderman, C.C., Phillips, T., Wiggins, A., Jordan, R., McCallie, E., Minarchek, M., Lewenstein, B.V., Krasny, M.E., Bonney, R., 2012. Public participation in scientific research: a framework for deliberate design. Ecol. Soc. 17.
  • Theobald, E.J., Ettinger, A.K., Burgess, H.K., DeBey, L.B., Schmidt, N.R., Froehlich, H.E., Wagner, C., HilleRisLambers, J., Tewksbury, J., Harsch, M.A., Parrish, J.K., 2015. Global change and local solutions: tapping the unrealized potential of citizen science for biodiversity research. Biol. Conserv. 181, 236–244.
  • Thomsen, P.F.,Willerslev, E., 2015. Environmental DNA – an emerging tool in conservation for monitoring past and present biodiversity. Biol. Conserv. 183, 4–18.
  1. Activities now gathering under the Citizen Science umbrella have been labeled by other terms such as volunteer monitoring, crowd sourcing, volunteered geographical information (Wikipedia reference).