OPAL scientists and participants help government research

Last year the OPAL York team, led by Sarah West, conducted a study funded by Defra (Project PH0475) to look at participation in environmental citizen science projects, with a particular focus on data submission within projects. We conducted two questionnaires and did a review of the available literature. The full report can be viewed and downloaded at the following link: Data submission in citizen science projects, but here is a summary of some of the key messages:

  • We commissioned a survey of 8220 households in the UK. Only a small percentage of these (7.5%) had done any environmental citizen science projects so there is lots of potential to engage with new audiences.
  • We also conducted the same survey with a smaller number of people (51) via the OPAL network.
  • Participation was biased towards those who were white, male, middle aged and high income. There is therefore potential to engage with other groups, perhaps by marketing differently.
  • People have many different motivations for participating: highlighting these different motivations could help to diversity participants and retain them.
  • The most common motivations were altruistic: i.e. wanting to help others (people, wildlife or contributing to scientific knowledge). The second most common motivations were relating to personal development, such as wanting to learn something new, enhancing personal development or career. Other motivations important for some people included wanting to share their knowledge with others.
  • OPAL participants seemed particularly motivated to contribute to scientific knowledge (80% of respondents), to help wildlife in general (75% of respondents), because it is a valuable thing to do (65%) and to learn something new (57%).
  • In general, the majority of work in citizen science projects is done by a minority of participants, so it is really important to keep these participants engaged and motivated. The literature talks about the 90:10 rule – that 90% of the work is done by 10% of people.
  • Our respondents reported a very high rate of returning their data (over 90%), which is high compared to the literature, in which reported return rates are more commonly between 10 and 50%. Survey return rates are maximised when people are given multiple ways to submit their data (e.g. online, post, within an app). Return rates were lowest when people were motivated to participate for personal reasons (e.g. have fun, get exercise etc). Younger people had the lowest rates of submission.
  • It was unclear why a small percentage of people did not submit their data: more research is needed here.
  • Around a quarter of all participants hadn’t had a response to submitting their data, which is interesting because the literature suggests feedback is an important motivating factor for some people.
  • Motivational probes (interventions such as emails explaining the use of data) can be used to encourage continued participation at ends of tasks and other points where participation declines.
  • Forming ‘volunteer identity’ (where the participant identifies as a volunteer) appears to be important for sustaining engagement in the longer term, and could include things like creating a sense of community for volunteers through online forums, case studies in newsletters, testing materials etc.
  • ‘Gamification’ in projects can appeal to some volunteers but be off-putting to others if they feel they can’t compete.
  • Participation in tasks such as testing data entry platforms can help invest participants in the project and increase the volume of data they submit.