Participatory science : organizing for contribution to both science and public understanding in ONEM

Par Florence MILLERAND (2013), Chercheur à l'Université de Québec (Montréal, Canada)

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This article provides a case study of a participatory science project that involved collecting observations of a giant grasshopper and registering them online. We identify a number of factors that enabled widespread participation in this naturalist inquiry, organized by Observatoire Naturaliste des Écosystèmes Méditerranéens (ONEM). Our findings illustrate how the association’s double goals of stimulating an appreciation for nature among the general public and of increasing scientific knowledge of the species under investigation are articulated as both naturalists and the general public participate. We propose a hybrid model of participatory science, neither scientist-driven nor grassroots-based, which originates in a commitment to ideals of openly accessible and free access to data, a “data commons.” This case illustrates how even low-level participation (crowdsourcing type) can produce significant results – not only in terms of generating scientific knowledge, but also in appreciation for science and scientific literacy.
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Key word

participatory science, citizen science, Web 2.0, crowdsourcing, commons, hybrid model, Saga pedo

1. Introduction

Sharing research resources of different kinds, in new ways, and on an increasing scale, is a central element of the new scientific landscape. In participatory Web (Web 2.0) environments, users are invited, not only to consume, but also to produce a large variety of content, tools and applications (Millerand et al 2010). The development of the participatory Web and the ubiquity of digital tools and media make the involvement of amateurs and the general public in scientific research a viable research strategy for some research problems. Over the past decade, the number of scientific projects that invite the participation of amateurs has exploded.

  • The objective of this article is to reflect on conditions for meaningful amateur participation in this type of science. To do so, we provide a detailed description of one particularly successful participatory science project organized by the Observatoire Naturaliste des Écosystèmes Méditerranéens (ONEM), a non-profit association based on the principles of open access and collective action. We illustrate how the association’s double goals of increasing environmental knowledge in the Mediterranean region and of engaging ordinary individuals in naturalist practices and providing accessible scientific information are articulated as both naturalists and the general public participate in the inquiry.
  • The article makes two contributions to the literature on participatory science. Firstly, we identify a number of factors that enabled widespread participation in a naturalist inquiry. These “best practices” concern both the architecture of the online platform and how it was integrated within the community. They may provide guidance as to how to design other online participatory science projects that target both knowledge production and increasing interest in science and scientific literacy. Our findings support some of what we know about best practices for online citizen science platforms but extend them by proposing a hybrid model of participatory science – neither top-down nor bottom-up – that originates in a political stance and a commitment to ideals of openly accessible and free access to data, a “data commons.”
  • Secondly, by examining the “crowdsourcing model” of Web 2.0 participatory science projects in another light, we provide evidence that small, relatively insignificant contributions are making a difference in science, not only in supplying information or data processing capabilities but also in orienting the type of questions asked. In situating amateurs’ contributions as an integral part of the scientific knowledge production process, our research suggests a redistribution of the division of labour in scientific work. We argue that the knowledge “chain” - from its production through it circulation and dissemination - is becoming less linear as heterogeneous actors intervene at various stages of the process, use digital devices such as collaborative platforms and databases, and contribute on unprecedented scales to scientific production. In terms of public understanding of and appreciation for science, this emergent reality lends increased importance to a perspective in which amateurs or the general public are not merely recipients of knowledge that is generated elsewhere. The case of ONEM’s Saga pedo inquiry provides an empirical illustration of our argument that even “low-level” participation can produce significant results in terms of increasing scientific knowledge, appreciation for science and scientific literacy.

2. Literature review

Participation of amateurs and non-scientists in science

Projects which invite members of the public to participate in producing scientific knowledge are often classed under the rubric of citizen science1, which also includes activities as varied as scientific popularisation and public participation in debates on issues which include a scientific component, such as nuclear power, environmental issues or biotechnologies. For the purposes of this article, we will use the term “participatory science” defined as the engagement of non-professionals in scientific investigation, whether by contributing resources, asking questions, collecting data, or interpreting results. Similarly, we prefer to refer to those participating as amateurs or participants, rather than citizens (which has a political connotation), or the public, which does not sufficiently acknowledge the active role these individuals play.

The participation of amateurs in producing scientific knowledge is not a new phenomenon, particularly in the field sciences (Charvolin et al., 2007; Miller-Rushing, Primack and Bonney, 2012), where collections (of data or specimens) play an important role. In botany, as in astronomy, regular amateur contribution dates back to the 19th century (Secord, 1994; Goodchild, 2007), while in natural history amateur efforts have been documented as early as the 18th century (Brenna, 2011). Similarly, organizational designs that involve the public are not new to science (e.g. the Audubon Christmas bird count started in 1900). What is new, however, is how the development of information technologies and the ubiquity of digital tools and media make the involvement of amateurs and the general public in scientific research a viable research strategy for some research problems.
Digital technologies are playing a pivotal role in the emergence of a structured amateur practice. On the one hand, by creating spaces that facilitate communication between professionals and amateurs, social media and Web 2.0 platforms provide opportunities for large-scale participation (Lievrouw, 2010). This multiplication of arenas for informal knowledge sharing can transform amateurs and the general public into the “invisible workers” of science (Barley and Bechky, 1994). On the other, the emergence of these new practices is directly related to the use of new observation technologies (such as personal GPS systems) and tools which enable the production, aggregation and sharing of data. These technologies stabilize knowledge by standardizing it as data stored in interoperable databases (Hanseth et al., 1996).

Bonney, Ballard, Jordan, McCallie
, Philips, Shirk and Wilderman (2009) propose distinguishing between three types of public participation based on the degree and type of involvement: contribution, collaboration or full participant (co-creation). Along similar lines, Wiggins and Crowston (2012) propose a distinction between community science and citizen science based on the locus of control of the inquiry. At its most basic, public participation may involve simply supplying resources, such as unused computing power, to a project that is managed by scientists. The best-known example is likely SETI@home (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), which installs a screensaver on volunteer computers to analyze radio signals from space.
The vast majority of projects that invite amateur participation follow a commons-based peer production model (Benkler, 2007) in which large numbers of contributors provide small contributions that are more or less independent, allowing them to be treated separately and then integrated into a coherent whole, with a variety of mechanisms to ensure the quality of results (Kelling et al, 2011; Wiggins et al, 2011). In this the scientific equivalent of crowdsourcing, amateurs work actively to gather and contribute data (usually observations) or to code or classify existing data (often specimens). For example, the Herbaria@home project, hosted by the U.K. Botanical Society, invites volunteers to document and classify plant specimens from collections throughout the United Kingdom, echoing a long tradition of collecting, preserving and exchanging specimens among amateur naturalists. In the ecological sciences, amateur participation using digital platforms tends to focus on observation of ecosystems and wildlife populations, where volunteers monitor natural resources or form a human sensor network for data collection, often at larger temporal and geographic scales than would otherwise be possible (Cornwell and Campbell, 2012). This can represent a significant contribution, since the quality of a data set is closely related to its size. What is more, a distributed network of amateurs can track the progression of phenomena in quasi-real time. In other fields, data processing projects leverage perceptual capacities and problem-solving skills, spanning a wide variety of task types, from data reduction of images of galaxies (Galaxy Zoo, Cho and Clery, 2009 ) to solving protein folding puzzles (Foldit, Cooper et al, 2010).)

Amateurs are seldom involved in the definition of research questions or the interpretation of results (Wiggins and Crowston, 2011; Lievrouw, 2010; Nielsen, 2012). Although their contributions are generally restricted and channelled by projects defined and managed by researchers, their work may lead to the actual production of scientific knowledge in the form of discoveries (ex. new galaxies), techniques, (ex. algorithms for protein folding), or research directions (ex. new questions about the impact of climate change on species distribution (Lemonnier-Darcemont, Bernier and Darcemont, 2009; Davis and Howard, 2005). Heaton, Millerand, Crespel and Proulx’s (2011) study of amateur practices in an online botanical network, TelaBotanica
, suggests something like a paradigm shift in the production of botanical knowledge. By providing order and organization - two “markers” of science identified by Henke and Gieryn (2008), digital tools and platforms developed by TelaBotanica
facilitate the production of legitimate botanical knowledge by non-scientists. In particular, Heaton et al. identify: a) new forms of division of labour between amateur and scientific activities, b) the pivotal role of amateurs in updating botanical knowledge through the aggregation of new content in a database, and c) the production of innovative resources (tools, databases) through the mobilization of the “many.” These findings extend Hine’s (2008) argument that databases have revolutionized practices in the systematic sciences. Along similar lines, Kelling et al (2009) suggest that the need to compile, organize and document large and complex data sets creates an opportunity to engage a larger number and wider scope of people in producing biodiversity data collections.

Bos and his colleagues (2007) contend that a major issue for online systems that support collaboration between distributed scientists and volunteers is the need to motivate contributors while ensuring the credibility and scientific validity of the data. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges for such “community contribution systems” is to allow participants at all levels to feel like full members. Previous studies of motivations, values and trust among participants in online science projects suggest primarily relational motivations: amateurs report a desire to work cooperatively, to share skills and knowledge, as well as to belong to a community (Raddick et al, 2010; Brossard et al, 2005). Enjoyment and identification with the project goals are also prime motivations (Nov, Arazy and Anderson, 2011; Raddick et al, 2010). Enhancing one’s reputation and an opposition to competitive, proprietary control of knowledge also appear as reasons for participating, although less frequently (Lievrouw, 2010). Many participatory science projects also incorporate mechanisms for recognizing their most active or productive participants, and often provide lists of publications produced by the project (some of which include amateur co-authors).

Fewer studies have looked at learning and educational outcomes of participatory science projects. In addition to increasing their subject knowledge, there is evidence that amateurs develop scientific thinking skills, such as increased concern for data quality and method (Trumbull et al, 2000; McCaffrey
, 2005; Krasny and Bonney, 2005). However, Brossard et al.’s (2005) study of the impact of Cornell's Birdhouse Network project on participants’ subject knowledge, understanding of the scientific process, and attitude towards science found subject learning, but no significant developments in terms of scientific process or attitude towards science. Finally, Evans et al. (2005) identified an increase in what they term participants’ “sense of place,” that is, their awareness of and relationship to the local environment.

3. Method

The study reported here was part of a four-year multi-sited research project exploring the use of several online platforms by amateurs and professionals in natural history and the environmental sciences in France. In addition to exploring each site individually, we examined the relationships between them and thus built up a portrait of naturalist activities. The larger study that informs this paper drew on data from a variety of sources, including over fifty semi-structured interviews, observations, analysis of online platforms and activity, and other documentary materials. Our overall approach was qualitative and ethnographically informed.

In the case of the Observatoire Naturaliste des Écosystèmes Méditerranéens (ONEM) platform that is the subject of this article, we analyzed the composition, structure and contributions in thirteen of ONEM’s fourteen species-based inquiries.2 For each, we compiled information on the number of contributions and their distribution over time (both seasonally and year by year). We also documented the different types of contributions on the platform. In addition to field observations, that may or may not be accompanied by a photo, the online platform accepts other types of contribution, such as historical data or data harvested from other naturalist databases in order to enrich understanding, or track the evolution of geographical distribution over time. Finally, since each contribution in ONEM remains associated with the individual or group of individuals who produced it, we were able to determine how many times an individual contributed to a given inquiry, who and how many people participated in multiple inquiries, and the evolution of their participation over time. This quantitative treatment highlighted different dynamics at work in different inquiries. It also enabled us to choose people to interview in order to deepen our understanding of a certain number of inquiries. We conducted semi-structured interviews with the association’s founders and with the coordinators of five species-specific inquiries – all of whom are also contributors to other inquiries. Data was collected over a period of eighteen months (March 2010 to August 2011). Interviews (in French) were taped, and transcribed. Quotes presented here have been translated and are referenced by a number given each respondent.

Our analysis was based on a grounded theory approach (Strauss and Corbin, 1998). We used qualitative data analysis software, NVivo, in order to support coding as well as to manage and query our data (Bazeley, 2007). Each interview was coded according to a set of categories that evolved during coding. Our team held regular joint data analysis sessions. Each team member then wrote a memo of salient points. Memos were shared and served as the starting point for the next data session. As categories and properties emerged, they gained in abstraction and the articulation between them became clearer.

4. Description of ONEM and the Saga pedo inquiry

The Observatoire Naturaliste des Écosystèmes Méditerranéens (ONEM) is a non-profit association based on the principles of open access and collective action. Founded in 2004, its mission is to increase naturalistic and environmental knowledge in the Mediterranean region, to serve as a point of reference for naturalists, researchers and managers of environmental services in the region, and to provide accessible scientific information to the general public. Participation in ONEM is open to everyone. ONEM coordinates its activities exclusively over the Internet and has no physical location or paid staff. The web site is based on an open-source Wiki and integrates a cartography module. ONEM also uses a database manager and a system for managing the photo gallery, email and Yahoo discussion lists for certain inquiries. All data are published under a Creative Commons licence.
ONEM’s principal activity is conducting species-specific “inquiries”. Anyone can propose an inquiry on a Mediterranean species. Subjects are typically chosen with a view to enhancing the visibility of little known species and/or to increasing knowledge of poorly understood or poorly documented species.3
One of the important elements is the scientific interest and also, not pedagogical interest exactly, but to what extent the inquiry will lead the general public to better appropriate knowledge about nature in the Mediterranean region. … Most of the inquiries are on species that are relatively easy to identify. On very, very specific things, we’ve tended to respond negatively because we think that the [specialists] who want to conduct such specific inquiries … have other means to conduct their inquiry. We’re using tools for the general public that aren’t really adapted for ultra-specialized things. That’s not where we’ve put our energy. (R2)
  • Once approved by members of a coordinating committee, a sub-site is created for the collection of data and relevant documentation. Each inquiry is autonomous and is run by a volunteer coordinator, who may not be a scientist or the most knowledgeable person on the species in question. The coordinator’s primary role is to manage the inquiry, which involves both managing the collected observations and encouraging participation. Participants report their observations by completing an online form with details such as the date, exact location, the number of specimens, as well as their names and contact information. They can also attach photographs to their observations. Since participants write directly on the page and see their contributions immediately, data validation becomes permanent and collective: anyone can signal information they consider doubtful to the inquiry’s pilot committee4, who will contact the observer directly to confirm the contribution.

Although ONEM operates exclusively using a collaborative online platform, it reaches a large audience by publicising its inquiries in local newspapers, and by producing a flyer for each inquiry that is distributed in places such as community centres, town halls and environmental associations. It also organizes periodic workshops and an annual weekend get together. In early 2013, ONEM had 15 open inquiries.

ONEM’s first, and largest, inquiry targeted the Saga pedo, a very large, carnivorous cricket, also known as the predatory bush cricket. With a body length of 10 cm and a total length that can reach 17 cm from antennae to tail, this insect is spectacular and highly recognizable, but rare. Present on the French, European and IUCN lists of threatened species, it was largely unknown in France (a 2003 atlas edited by the French National Natural History Museum (MNHN) had reported only 72 sightings in France). By all accounts, 2004 was a “good year” for crickets, and thus propitious for launching the inquiry. ONEM printed and distributed 4,000 paper copies of a flyer (see Figures 1 and 2), calling for people to record their observations of the Saga pedo and established an Internet site for collecting and sharing observations.5 The flyer described the Saga’s distinguishing characteristics and behaviour, as well as its preferred habitats and proposed a simple, innovative observation protocol.6 It also contained a “beware of look-alikes” section. As a summary of existing knowledge about the species, the flyer itself was a valuable reference tool for naturalists and environmental educators.

Figure 1. “Wanted! poster” for the Saga pedo
Figure 2. Saga pedo’s distinguishing features (flyer interior)
The inquiry was a resounding success. In just a year, the number of observations recorded increased fivefold. The inquiry was most active in its first two years, with the total number of observations passing 1,000 in 2007 (see Figure 3). By the end of 2012 the inquiry had gathered over 1,200 observations. Given its low level of recent activity, the inquiry will wrap up in 2013 after ten years.

Figure 3. Distribution of the Saga pedo

As is usual on collaborative sites, a small number of individuals were responsible for the majority of contributions7. Six percent (n=40) were responsible for half of the contributions to the Saga inquiry, including data entry of observations from other sources. In terms of field observations, 540 individuals made actual observations. According to the inquiry’s coordinator, over half of them were from the general public.8 41 individuals contributed more than ten observations each and were responsible for 31% of all observations. Forty percent of participants went on to participate in other ONEM inquiries.

In the first years of the inquiry, about a third of all observations were accompanied by one or more photos, but this proportion declined after a stock of photos had been constituted and seeing the insect became less of a novelty. Observing the Saga was a largely individual affair, with only 14% of observations entered made by groups. In keeping with naturalist practices, observations were attributed to those present at the sighting, not the person or persons who entered them on the website. This transposition of the “ownership” principle is a clear indication of the role of the platform for contributors: the website and the form are situated downstream from the activity of observation. What is more, in the days, weeks or months between the date of an observation and its entry into the ONEM database, it is typically consigned in a notebook, another common naturalist practice.

The success of the Saga inquiry in terms of participation, led the coordinator and close collaborators to compile two syntheses to present the advancement of the project in 2004 and 2005 respectively. The online syntheses contain bibliographic references on Saga pedo, the results of the inquiry with all contributors’ names and the location of observations on a dynamic map, statistical treatment, as well as information on new discoveries about the species. A coffee table book about the Saga is also being prepared in order to share the results of the inquiry with as broad a public as possible. It will be both a synthesis of the inquiry results and a further effort at increasing public appreciation of science and promoting cooperative action in the naturalist world.
5. Analysis and discussion
We organize our discussion in three parts. First, we highlight how the Saga inquiry implemented a number of strategies that have been mentioned in the literature as conducive for soliciting participation. We then consider what made this inquiry different, by focusing on the association’s stance regarding data and public participation and showing how this permeated the organisation of the inquiry. We describe this difference as a hybrid model, neither scientist-driven (top-down) nor grass roots (bottom-up). Finally, we illustrate how this model, based on minimal engagement, nonetheless produced a significant scientific contribution, both in developing new scientific knowledge and increasing scientific literacy.

Implementing best practices in online participatory science

ONEM’s Saga pedo inquiry is a success story of participatory science on several levels. ONEM’s primary goal is increasing participation in naturalist activities. By all accounts, the Saga inquiry generated widespread interest and participation. To this end, in organizing the inquiry, the ONEM team made a number of judicious choices. Firstly, they engaged their participants. By choosing a spectacular species and by seizing an opportunity – the contingencies of nature made 2004 a good year for crickets – the inquiry built on the natural curiosity of individuals. If they didn’t already know of the ONEM inquiry, they would often do an Internet search for “giant grasshopper”, and be pointed to the site.9 Targeting a species in particular also enabled ONEM to solicit the participation of confirmed naturalists who may have been more interested in plants or birds than an insect. In the words of one of ONEM’s founders, focusing on one species is “good for [involving naturalists] because as soon as you tell them what to look for, they can find it.”(R1) The paper flyers were also an important strategy for engaging participants. Their distribution in local town halls and meeting places helped situate the inquiry as a regional activity, as well as to reassure potential contributors as to the level of skill required.

Secondly, ONEM insisted on making participation in the inquiry easy. “In a lot of participatory science programs, you have to register, have an access code, use long forms. We didn't follow that route… We really try to lower the threshold for participation, to keep it as simple as possible.”(R1) Contributors need only type textual information into a simple form. One coordinator interviewed referred to the goal of “making it so simple that even a child can participate without risk of confusion” (R6). This accent on simplicity is consistent with the findings of previous research. For instance, Bonney, Cooper et al (2009) recommend keeping projects simple in order to reach large audiences, arguing that “even simple projects can address complicated questions by recruiting a subset of participants into more complex tasks” (p. 979). While participant segregation has not been ONEM’s strategy, in each inquiry individuals who are more knowledgeable about the species typically volunteer to take on additional tasks, such as data validation, or developing materials such as observation protocols, information leaflets or syntheses.
Despite the simplicity of its website, ONEM makes good use of the interactive possibilities of Web 2.0, particularly to provide immediate, personalized feedback. One of ONEM’s founders explains how the Web has transformed the way naturalist observations are treated:
  • Typically, when someone wanted to report a sighting, he would communicate with a museum, which meant he had to already have a contact there. And then there was no feedback, until maybe 10 or15 years later when a scientist might publish something. But now, with websites where the contribution is immediately visible and feedback on observations is also immediate, there’s a dynamic, a network of observers that has developed and a sort of friendly competition among them to get as much data as possible. (R2)
  • The inquiry’s website includes a dynamic map and lists the details of every participant’s contributions. These features provide recognition mechanisms that emphasize the value of participation. One coordinator affirms that people take part in the inquiries precisely because of the visibility of their individual contributions.
  • That’s what people tell us … In ONEM feedback is immediate. You enter an observation on the map and the next second you see your point on the map. Your name and your observation are shown in a [popup] extension. And that’s totally innovative, because in most participatory science programs, the general public contributes observations, but these observations aren’t valued later. They’re usually transformed [aggregated]. Whereas, in ONEM every contribution is put online and is accessible to everyone – as is. It’s the result of someone’s work and it is preserved on the site in the same way it was entered. (R1)
  • Another interviewee told us that it would have been possible, but more difficult, to conduct the Saga inquiry without interactive mapping, which reinforced participation (R2). This is consistent with Sullivan et al’s (2009) finding that the number of individuals submitting data nearly tripled when eBird’s website was upgraded with new features that allowed personalized views of their own observations and comparison with those of others (reported in Bonney, Cooper et al (2009 : 981). Being able to see one’s own observation recorded on the map also incited people to revisit the site, either to confirm its presence or to compare with other observations (R2).

Finally, participation in the inquiry was conceived of as a both an online and offline activity. Observing nature is, by definition, a local activity. In their choice of species and in their approach, the ONEM coordinators consciously ascribe value to local, situated knowledge and experience. Promoting it by distributing paper flyers in local town halls and meeting places corresponds to this choice. The interactive maps on the platform are regional in scale, although it is possible to zoom out. ONEM thus proposed an activity in which the “field” component was primordial, and for which the platform was a complement. They were drawing on a “sense of place” (Evans et al 2005) that has proven extremely significant in non-Internet based participatory science programs (Miller-Rushing et al, 2012).

The combination of these elements: an attractive object, ease of participation and minimal requirements in terms of technical skill and engagement, judicious use of elements of the platform to the extent of downplaying the importance of the site, and links with the local community made widespread participation possible, but were not in and of themselves sufficient to produce a successful inquiry. These strategies should be interpreted in the context of ONEM’s primary goal of increasing public understanding of the natural environment and its explicit positioning of contributors.

Neither top-down not bottom-up: recognition, coordination and facilitation

The Saga and other ONEM inquiries follow a hybrid model of participatory science anchored in a commitment to ideals of data commons and individual worth.

We support the creation of common goods. That’s something that… seduces the general public. The data that they supply don’t go into some database where you don’t know what will happen to them or whose interests they will serve. [In ONEM] they’re immediately available and reusable and in the public domain. … For us, that’s essential. (R2)

Participants are not viewed as “data providers” for scientific projects. Their contributions are valued as coming from individuals, and the specificity of each observation remains visible on the site. Indeed, in some parts of the site, observations are referred to as “témoignages” (testimonials or evidence) rather than data. “Contributors are not considered simple observers, inventors, or anonymous data contributors, but as eye witnesses to the history of our natural heritage.”10 This ideological stance translates into an insistence on acknowledging all contributions as significant.

People need to be recognized for their actions, that’s normal. And when you contribute even the smallest brick, the tiniest bit of evidence about a species, you should be recognized for that because you made an effort to participate. And it’s very important for us to provide people with that recognition. (R4)

ONEM’s founders insist strongly that participants should receive something in return. The Saga inquiry’s annual syntheses were a means of providing regular feedback on the progress of the inquiry. The book project is another way of giving back to the community. The importance of educational materials in providing information and proposing observational protocols has been discussed by Bonney, Cooper et al (2009), but for ONEM the flyers and syntheses are also a way of sharing interest for nature, and of “giving back.”

This “commons-based” stance makes it impossible to conceive of the Saga inquiry as a top-down, scientist-driven project. However, the inquiry would not have happened were it not for the organization provided by ONEM in general and its coordinator in particular. In fact, the coordinator plays a double role in both coordinating and facilitating the inquiry. For this reason, ONEM prefers that inquiry coordinators not be experts on the species, simply people who are interested and competent enough to ensure their smooth progression. We suggest that this dual concern for the community (facilitation) and for advancing science (through coordinating data and ensuring its validation) is a point of originality and the key to ONEM’s success.

Animation and facilitation play an important role in whetting the appetite of potential contributors. A coordinator will “transmit the desire to look for things and accompany them live as they find them” (R3), as well as encourage participation and publish regular syntheses (R5). The Saga inquiry was exemplary in this regard. Its coordinator “was a good facilitator who called on people often, who used a little pressure: ‘no Saga observed in this area, maybe you could add something…’ And so, even with just a discussion list and a website, before the mapping tool, we accumulated a lot of data.” (R2)

As noted in the literature review, data quality is a concern in participatory science. Participants are typically seen as a source of error, and the data they provide as requiring some type of validation. Wiggins et al (2011) provide a list of data validation and quality control mechanisms used in participatory science projects. Data quality is also a concern for ONEM inquiries, particularly given the simplicity of its online form. In ONEM, however, there are two types of data validation. “Since raw data is always on the site, if someone notices something that seems wrong, he can [bring it up]. So validity is ensured by a permanent collective monitoring.”(R4) This ongoing, collective validation is complemented by a second, more classic type, performed on data that has often already been identified as questionable by other participants. The coordinator and a small number of knowledgeable volunteers use a variety of measures, among them digital vouchers, such as asking the observer if they can provide a photo of the species, personal knowledge of participant skills/expertise and contacting participants about unusual reports. Wiggins et al (2011) suggest that contacting participants for verification may alienate them and discourage participation. However, none of the ONEM coordinators interviewed mentioned this. They typically viewed such contacts as a positive experience that allowed exchange beyond simple data validation.

Minimal engagement but significant contribution

At first glance, the Saga inquiry resembles a crowdsourcing project in which large numbers of non-specialists contributed basic information about their observations using a simple online form. It is tempting to underestimate the significance of this type of contribution, possibly because each contribution is so small and because data analysis typically remains in the hands of scientists. However, widespread participation produces larger data sets, with wider geographic (and sometimes temporal) distribution. In the field of ecology, participatory science projects have produced extensive datasets that could not have been collected by professionals alone (Miller-Rushing et al, 2012 give several examples). The advantages for natural scientists are related to the fact that data quality goes with quantity – a larger dataset will be more robust. The Saga inquiry produced an explosion in the number of observations, coverage that would have otherwise been impossible, and a correspondingly dramatic increase in dataset quality. The coordinator notes that, while the top contributors who all work in entomology may be responsible for the most data, “that’s quantitative, not qualitative. The quality comes from the general public. They are really the ones who made the difference.” (R1) He further explains: “if you are working from a few observations, the margin of error is large. But if you work on thousands of data, the margin of error is below the threshold that would invalidate the work, taking into account that the data are still validated by specialists.” (R1)

The Saga inquiry also led to the emergence of new questions. After gathering enough data to reconstruct the species’ geographical range, the inquiry turned its attention to generating knowledge about the ecology of the species, such as its reproductive habitat, or the impact of climatic variations on hatching, size and periodicity of observation.

And then there are elements that were completely unknown before we launched the inquiry that we were able to document and, in doing so, make a scientific contribution to biology and the ecology of the species. For example, we demonstrated that the Saga is active in early evening but [not late at night]11. So, the activity of the species varies according to time of day. (R1)
This echoes Davis and Howard (2005) who illustrated both the value of data contributed online by the general public on monarch butterfly movement, and the emergence of new questions.

The Saga inquiry also differs from traditional scientific crowdsourcing in that it was not established in order to obtain data for a specific scientist-driven project, although its data has been used in at least one scientific paper. Rather, its goal was to generate a dataset that could be used by any number of people to answer questions that were not specified in advance. To this end, ONEM’s online infrastructure plays a vital role. “The website helped us organize things, structure them, make them durable.” (R2) In addition to collecting observations, it acted as a clearinghouse by centralizing information on the Saga. ONEM organizers insist strongly that access to this information be open to all under the Creative Commons licence. In this, ONEM’s position is much more radical than that of most participatory science platforms. Bonney, Cooper et al (2009) are among the few who recommend allowing and encouraging participants to manipulate and study project data as one of the most educational features of participatory science. However, their proposition is limited to allowing “participants to view a diverse set of graphs, maps, histograms, and other visualizations that immediately show how their data are being used” (p. 981), and does not appear to encourage actual use of data by ordinary participants.

Miller-Rushing et al (2012: 289) note that “citizen science is also increasingly seen as a way to engage the public in science, improve scientific literacy and interest in science, and inform participants about particular topics.” With its double goal of increasing scientific knowledge and promoting appreciation of the natural world, ONEM shares this emerging perspective. The scientific interest of an ONEM inquiry is just one facet. “The other – because our goal is better knowledge of the Mediterranean region – is the creation of a network of observers, a network of people interested in nature, who observe. Not necessarily with a view to scientific education, but of developing an interest in nature.”(R2) This dual concern is reflected in the inquiry coordinator’s double role of data management and facilitation. It is also present in ONEM’s marriage of online and offline activities and strategies. Thus, “even if participants don’t register their observations on the website, it’s not too serious. Their participation is also important. It’s not just gathering data that is important.”(R2)

ONEM situates its inquiries within a perspective of continuity, in terms of both content and durability. The Saga inquiry took an historical approach in retracing and compiling historical observations. This echoes Miller-Rushing et al’s (2012) suggestion that historical citizen-science datasets may enrich understandings of long-term changes in the environment and their causes and consequences. Unlike many participatory science projects that are circumscribed in time, either by scientific imperatives or by financial concerns, the Saga inquiry was conceived of as an ongoing, open-ended activity. “The idea is not necessarily that it continue forever. Once an inquiry has gathered sufficient information to answers all the questions that were asked, it could be closed. … On the other hand, it’s too bad in a way because it has gotten people involved.” (R3) The fact that the Saga inquiry will be the first inquiry to close in 2013 after ten years reflects this ambivalence.

ONEM seeks to foster an ongoing interest in nature, far beyond participation in a single inquiry. To what extent have they succeeded in this aspect of their mission? All our respondents mentioned that participants tend to become interested in other species and to get involved in other inquiries. The fact that forty percent (n=220) of the people who took part in the Saga inquiry went on to participate in other ONEM inquiries, and that many ONEM contributors do in fact contribute to multiple inquiries confirm this perception. We do not know what other kinds of naturalist activities participants engage in outside of participating online in ONEM, although our respondents have observed that people are motivated to participate in other naturalist activities. One person we interviewed reported that he is sometimes contacted by people who saw a notice or article about the inquiry two or more years earlier and who now want to participate. “And you say to yourself ‘that person kept that newspaper clipping because he or she was interested but didn’t participate at the time for whatever reason. But the interest was there.’”(R3) He goes on to suggest that the significance of outreach activities such as distributing flyers and other documentation can only be evaluated in the long term. By all accounts, in terms of public understanding of and appreciation for nature, ONEM is indeed building its “network of observers” – one inquiry at a time.

6. Conclusions

Whereas, Bonney, Ballard et al. (2009) propose distinguishing between three types of public participation based on degree and type of involvement, and Wiggins and Crowston (2012) propose a distinction based on the project’s locus of control, the Saga pedo inquiry illustrates an alternative model. In ONEM inquiries, control is in the hands of a small group, the project’s designers, and the level of participant investment and engagement required from participants is minimal (although more is encouraged). By explicitly recognizing the contributions of all participants and paying attention to them, not only the data they provide, however, the ONEM model encourages meaningful participation and empowerment, which leads to authentic learning. We argue that it has been successful at least partially because it brings together individuals of different backgrounds and expertise, all of whose contributions are recognized as important. Everyone, including the coordinator, is a volunteer who gives freely of his or her time and knowledge to enrich the common good. This stance of “co-ownership” of both the inquiry and the data allows the coexistence of different registers of knowledge (amateur, professional and general public), different disciplines who may be interested by the species (for example entomology, ecology and botany) and different projects: the data compiled are available for use in multiple projects.
  • Our findings are limited by the specificity of our case. We have described ONEM’s actions to encourage both the development of scientific knowledge and public understanding and appreciation of the natural world around them, with a particular focus on one inquiry. In examining the “crowdsourcing model” of Web 2.0 participatory science projects in another light, we have provided evidence that small, relatively insignificant contributions can make a difference in science, but our example is situated in a particular local context, one in which offline activities complement the participatory Web platform.
Long before the advent of Web 2.0, in his seminal 1996 article, Bucchi argued against “reducing the public to an external, monolithic, and taken-for-granted source of support,” (which we argue a crowdsourcing view of science tends to do). He further suggested that
communication of science at the popular level may influence core scientific practice … It can foster the inclusion or the exclusion of actors or theories from the specialists’ discourse, and it can make room for new interpretations or confer a different status on existing models by linking them to other public issues and themes. The popular stage can in this sense provide an open space where stimuli, ideas and information may be merged and exchanged among different actors and across disciplinary fields, in the absence of the constraints and conventions which bind scientific work and communication at the specialist level.(Bucchi. 1996: 386)
  • Using its platform as a space for exchange and interaction among different actors in the absence of the constraints and conventions which bind scientific work and communication at the specialist level, ONEM’s Saga pedo inquiry communicates science by encouraging participating in it. This is precisely the ideological, and naturalist, mission of ONEM.


Thanks to our research assistants, and the people interviewed from the Observatoire Naturaliste des Écosystèmes Méditerranéens.


This work was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada [ ]


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