Online citizen science projects: an exploration of motivation, contribution and participation

Curtis, Vickie (2015). Online citizen science projects: an exploration of motivation, contribution and participation. PhD thesis The Open University.



The number of online citizen science projects has increased significantly over the past decade, yet some aspects of participation are poorly understood as is the motivation behind the involvement of the scientists who set up these projects, and the citizen scientists who take part.

This thesis explores three different online citizen science projects (Foldit, Folding@home and Planet Hunters) using a case study approach and data collected through online surveys, interviews and participant observation. It explores the motivations that initiate and sustain participation, and it examines the various ways individuals can contribute to these projects. It also investigates how participants (both professional scientists and citizen scientists) interact online. A number of theoretical models of motivation and participation are considered.

While many individuals register to take part in these projects, only a small proportion become active participants. These active citizen scientist volunteers are motivated to participate because they want to make a contribution to science or have a background interest in science. Scientists set up these projects in order to get help analysing large volumes of data, particularly those that require human pattern recognition or problem-solving skills. The complexity of the project task and the presence of certain technological features can affect how participants interact with each other, and how they contribute. Tasks that are complex are more likely to present opportunities for cooperation and collaboration, and may foster the development of online communities of practice.

The findings of this research suggest that online citizen science projects have been important in making scientific research more open for a number of distributed volunteers. These individuals have responded to the challenges presented by these projects, increasing their scientific and technical understanding, and self-organising into various roles and teams in order to produce new knowledge.

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