OCLC-LIBER Open Science Discussion on Citizen Science

Thanks to Sarah Bartlett, technology writer, for contributing this guest blog post.

Sarah Bartlett

How is Citizen Science—the active contribution of the general public in scientific research activities—developing, and what should research library involvement look like? This final session of the OCLC/LIBER Open Science Discussion series brought together research librarians with a range of viewpoints and practical experiences of this exciting area. Together the group formed a vision of Citizen Science in an ideal future state, and identified challenges that stand in the way of achieving that.

Much progress has been made since 2018, when libraries first identified a potential role in Citizen Science. Since then, several research libraries in Europe have incorporated Citizen Science into their activities—despite the adverse impact of COVID-19—and are working with researchers. We can also see knowledge brokering taking place in this area, one valuable example being LIBER’s Citizen Science Working Group, two members of whom were present at this session. So we’re seeing some momentum for libraries within Citizen Science, though not evenly spread, across Europe.

“It’s important to emphasize that Citizen Science is not about making citizens better scientists; it’s about making scientists better citizens.”

Citizen Science – What would be the ideal future state?

Citizen scientists at work. Image CC BY, NPS / Karlie Roland

As an emerging field within Open Science, Citizen Science proved to be fertile ground for a vigorous discussion of an ideal future state, and the group explored a number of fruitful areas.

Bringing citizens and scientists closer together. It’s important to emphasize that Citizen Science is not about making citizens better scientists; it’s about making scientists better citizens, one participant argued. Through Citizen Science, scientists can gain a broader understanding of citizens and their perceptions, expectations, and worries in relation to science. That said, another important by-product will be that people would better understand the scientific endeavor, in what some regard as a post-truth society.

Fuller engagement of citizens. The group agreed that all too often citizens are limited to data collection activities. An ideal future state would see citizens more fully integrated in Citizen Science work. They would be more aware of the broader context of their work, and the science itself would be re-articulated in layman’s terms. This would result in fewer cases of volunteer burnout (a known problem in Citizen Science) and an increased likelihood of volunteers moving beyond “pleasant Sunday activities”, such as photographing wildlife close to home, into more challenging work.

Improved awareness of Citizen Science. At present, more Citizen Science research takes place than is formally recognized or coordinated. A number of participants reported uncovering hidden examples of Citizen Science within their institution. In an ideal future state, all Citizen Science would be identifiable as such, making it easier to form partnerships and share knowledge.

Cross-disciplinary engagement. The need for more involvement with the arts, humanities, social sciences, etc. resonated strongly with the group. Although Citizen Science originated in the natural sciences, in an ideal future state it would enjoy cross-disciplinary engagement.

A clear but flexible role for libraries. In an ideal future state, libraries would have a clear role within Citizen Science. But as they work towards this, a one-size-fits-all approach is not feasible. One speaker proposed an empathic approach—to try to walk in the shoes of both researchers and citizens, as a way of establishing what might work in libraries’ own setting. Ideas included:

  • a single point of contact for citizens, an idea proposed by the LIBER Citizen Science Working Group,
  • relationship brokering and knowledge sharing, which sit comfortably within the librarian skillset,
  • the provision of spaces, collections, and open content to support Citizen Science, and
  • the lending of powerpacks to citizens for mobile devices, to support lengthy periods of work in remote locations.
Photo by Alex Rainer on Unsplash

“Another practical idea is to try to walk in the shoes of researchers, and embed Citizen Science activities along these lines. And then walk in the shoes of citizens, who might worry that their mobile phone will run out of charge if they spend twelve hours away in a remote location. So they’d need a power pack. Could the library lend one?”

Obstacles and challenges

In the second half of the session, participants identified challenges which stood in the way of this ideal future state. They then voted in a poll to establish the top three challenges, which were:

  1. Libraries are not aware of what they can do for Citizen Science.
  2. More collaboration between libraries and researchers.
  3. Engaging libraries in new partnerships.

Challenge 1 – Libraries are not aware of what they can do for Citizen Science

The LIBER Open Science Roadmap suggests promoting the library as an active partner and using the library as an organizing and managing body within Citizen Science. These roles draw on established professional strengths, as does the single point of contact for coordination. The roadmap also recommends producing guidelines, methodologies and policies to help libraries get involved. In terms of advocacy, LIBER’s Citizen Science Working Group and projects are a good start, but more is needed.

Ultimately, each library needs to engage with Citizen Science in its own way. For a profession traditionally reliant on process and guidance, this may be challenging. However, librarians are skilled relationship brokers. One speaker pointed out that although his library does not interact with the public directly, it does deal with institutions that do—the national library, public libraries, museums, and organizations in the heritage sector.

Challenge 2 – More collaboration between libraries and researchers

Librarians already deliver research support in a number of ways, and offer services and competencies that can be readily framed into Citizen Science. Some librarians feel under-confident about supporting researchers. But as one speaker noted, researchers need help finding the right information—a core librarian skill. Institutions aren’t always aware of what the library can do for Citizen Science.

One participant suggested that if libraries were more familiar with Citizen Science, they might be better positioned to identify what they can do. Libraries would benefit from clear guidance from experienced libraries who are already involved in Citizen Science activities.

Challenge 3 – Engaging libraries in new partnerships

Citizen Science cannot happen in a silo; it is crucial for research libraries to form partnerships with stakeholders in other types of organization, even in the early stages of Citizen Science involvement.

LIBER’s Citizen Science Working Group monitors opportunities for partnerships. Partnerships with public libraries are particularly important because university libraries do not interact directly with citizens. The group discussed awareness raising among public librarians, many of whom are curious about Citizen Science, to prepare the ground for citizen engagement. 

Challenge 4 – Just do it

Photo by Elisabeth Wales on Unsplash

Outside the top three, another challenge had surprising resonance for libraries and Citizen Science—the Nike tagline, Just do it.

Just do it might involve identifying individuals who are already working on Citizen Science research at laboratory level, then putting forward existing library services to help. At TU Delft, the library has enjoyed considerable success, by starting small and watching activities snowball. They began by adopting a knowledge broker role across the research and library communities, by inviting researchers who were already working on Citizen Science to a series of working sessions. People joined in because they liked it and felt connected to it.

In the context of the global pandemic, in which changing priorities are placing considerable strain on budgets, an agile, lightweight approach may be the only option open to libraries that are keen to deliver Citizen Science with existing resources. Simple guidance around simple, low-cost activities would be valuable for both university and public libraries. Once Citizen Science initiatives gain traction, they can be rolled in with existing work on Open Science and Open Access. But it starts with libraries taking a proactive approach to spotting opportunities in their own setting.

About the OCLC-LIBER Open Science Discussion Series

The discussion series is a joint initiative of OCLC Research and LIBER (the Association of European Research Libraries). It focusses on the seven topics identified in the LIBER Open Science Roadmap, and aims to guide research libraries in envisioning the support infrastructure for Open Science (OS) and their roles at local, national, and global levels. The series runs from 24 September through 5 November.

The kick-off webinar opened the forum for discussion and exploration and introduced the theme and its topics. Summaries of all seven topical small group discussions have now been published on the OCLC Research blog, Hanging Together. The previous posts are: (1) Scholarly Publishing, (2) FAIR research data, (3) Research Infrastructures and the European Open Science Cloud, (4) Metrics and rewards, (5) Skills and (6) Research Integrity.