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How do you make citizen science successful?

Mapping out the problem of plastic pollution requires a lot of data over a large area. That's why scientists are increasingly turning to volunteers for help, also known as citizen science. But what are the challenges for a researcher when he or she involves the public in research in this way? Four Leiden scientists sought an answer to this question. Their results were published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin on 3 June.

Citizen science

From filtering water for analysing microplastics to online observation of plastic on beaches via drone photos, the number of citizen science projects on plastic pollution is growing rapidly. In order to increase their success, it is important to evaluate them and to exchange experiences. That is why Liselotte Rambonnet, Suzanne Vink (at the time both Master's students Science Communication & Society), Thijs Bosker (CML and Leiden University College) and Anne Land-Zandstra (Science Communication & Society) investigated the experiences of ten scientists who are involved in these citizen science projects. The success stories and challenges that followed led to a framework with twelve recommendations.

One of the recommendations is to define the goals at the beginning of the project. In citizen science, not only the generation of new scientific knowledge is an objective, but also the involvement of the public in research. Another important advice given by the interviewees was that it is important to communicate with the participants at all times and to work together with communicators to this end. 'No matter how brilliant your website may be, people would still like to talk to someone on the phone or via e-mail'. In addition, several interviewees indicated that working with volunteers had increased their own motivation for their research. 'I never dared to dream how many people are already thinking about the plastic problem and how many people I can reach with this project.' Although the research focused on plastic projects, the results can also be applied to other citizen science projects.

Interdisciplinary team

For this research, an interdisciplinary team of scientists with backgrounds in biology, environmental sciences and science communication joined forces. Land-Zandstra among other things conducts research into the motivation of volunteers in the citizen science project 'Clean Rivers'. As an environmental scientist, Bosker set up the 'Global Microplastics Project': 'In retrospect, practical tips for setting up and implementing citizen science would have been very useful to me during my project at the time'. Rambonnet adds: 'I think it's important to do research that really benefits the field of practice, in this case scientists who set up a citizen science project. That's why we published this research in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Framework with advice for setting up or improving citizen science projects

Plastics in the canals of Leiden

In the coming months Bosker, Land-Zandstra and Rambonnet will also be involved in setting up a new citizen science project on plastic in the canals of Leiden. This project arose from questions from Leiden residents. The  Citizen Science Lab received these questions in response to a call in the context of the 444th anniversary of Leiden University. Thanks to financial support from the Municipality of Leiden and the university, they will set up this project in the coming months.

Read the article in Marine Pollution BulletinMaking citizen science count: Best practices and challenges of citizen science projects on plastics in aquatic environments

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