Citizen Science: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” (Part 1)

Figure 1 Epicollect: Collecting cinematic artifacts in urban space with the help of the Epicollect app


Part 1: Definitions, seeming citizen science hype, my conceptualization: Anna Luise Kiss reports from her film studies citizen research project

22 September 2020


Structure of the blog post

In this three-part blog post, I would like to share with readers my experiences while working on the citizen research project The cinematic face of the city of Potsdam. This post is an extended translation of a blog post written in German, which was published first on the Open Media Studies Blog. I’m a Film Studies scholar at the Film University in Babelsberg, Germany. That being the case, I argue from the perspective of German Film and Media studies, where explicit citizen research projects are still a rarity.

In the first part, I will discuss how citizen science is generally defined and to what it’s current hype is attributed. Afterwards, I will outline my own definition of citizens research and it’s underlying role in the project. The cinematic face of the city of Potsdam will be presented in the second entry, together with a description of how I have implemented the basic requirements, as they are set out in various guidebooks and guidelines for citizen science projects. In the third part, I will describe how the project has actually progressed. Based on the discrepancies that have arisen between theory and practice, as well as an apparent disproportion between effort and the number of participants, the basic requirements will be supplemented by my own recommendations and thoughts. Final results from the project are not yet available, but sufficient experience has been accumulated to justify a feeling of success, even if it is qualified by the paradox alluded to in Samuel Beckett’s “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”[i] which I have chosen as a subtitle for the post (more on that later). That said, my experience might be helpful to readers, especially those from the Film and Media studies who would like to include citizen research in their research repertoire.

Definitions of citizen science

The “umbrella term”[ii] open science is inclusive of the term citizen science – in the German-speaking world often referred to as “Bürger_innenwissenschaft” (citizen science), less often as “Bürger_innenforschung” (citizen research). There are various definitions of this term. On the one hand, there are narrow approaches that use the term citizen science solely for projects with a demanding content, in which non-professional researchers have a decisive influence on the entire research cycle.[iii] The Extreme Citizen Science initiative, for example, tends in this direction. It provides tools that enable citizens carry out their own research projects, thus promoting citizen science as a bottom-up approach. Another example is the Stadtteil-Historiker Project (district historians project), situated in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Here citizens are encouraged to undertake research not in co-operation with an established scholar and under her/his direction, but as the lead researcher. They are directly provided with money, scientific tools and instruments to realize their own projects.[iv]

Figure 2 Stadtteil-Historiker Project: The results of the research projects of Stadtteil-Historiker Project are published regularly. Each volumes can be ordered free of charge from the foundation


On the other hand, there are broad definitions which list research projects with varying degrees of citizen involvement under the term citizen science: from institutional projects, in which professional researchers invite participants to collect and  process data so that it can be analyzed by scientists, to projects initiated by citizens themselves and carried out in cooperation with professional researchers, including joint analysis and exploitation of results.[v] These broad definitions assume a research collaboration between professional researchers and citizens[vi] and a co-production of knowledge.[vii] Recent examples include a project of the Kreisarchiv Stormarn (district archive Stormarn), which has called on the citizens of Stormarn to help make accessible archival holdings of unlisted photographs; in the Transcribe Cooper project, citizens transcribe documents written in English, French and Latin by the civil rights activist Anna Julia Cooper; and in the Wenker project, contemporary Swiss German is compared with Swiss German of the 1930s through the translation work of citizens.

Figure 3 Project Wenker: Project page of the citizen research project Wenker. Accessible via the website of the Citizen science Center Zurich


Citizen science is further defined as an “evolving set of research methods”[viii] that can complement existing methods, or as “a flexible concept which can be adapted and applied within diverse situations and disciplines”[ix]. Whether defined narrowly or broadly, or understood as a method or concept, the basic premise is that citizens are not the primary object of investigation, but are active participants in a scientific process.[x]

Citizen science hype

The ubiquity of term citizen science may lead one to believe that we have, for many years now, been witnessing a form of citizen’s science “hype”. Many factors seem to support such a conclusion, including higher education policy commitments to citizen research and appeals to strengthen it in the spirit of open science, the establishment of competence centers such as the Citizen Science Center Zurich, the publication of guidelines and directives that formulate basic requirements for citizen research projects, the provision of platforms such as Bürger schaffen Wissen (Citizens create knowledge) and of third-party funding for the promotion of citizen science. The rise of citizen science – like the open science movement as a whole – is associated with technological developments (e.g. the spread of GPS-based apps, of smartphones that allow the taking of photos, videos and sound, 3G and 4G coverage) enabling the collection and storage of data by citizens and an effortless mode of communication.[xi]  Social developments such as the increase in education and leisure time, the extension of life expectancy[xii] and the growing need for participation and political involvement in many societies also contribute to the hype.[xiii]

The trends have fundamentally altered citizen science. Most of the public in the early twentieth century could not be relied upon to identify and report the scientific names of species (though some expert amateur naturalist has done so) and were not equipped with scientific understanding; nor were they carrying around powerful scientific instruments in their pockets. In contrast, today, hundreds of millions of people have such abilities, and therefore the potential for participation is much higher.[xiv]

But even if the current higher education policy agenda and the institutionalization of citizen science suggest otherwise, citizen science is not something new in the natural sciences, the humanities, cultural studies or social sciences. Even before the establishment of professional science in the 19th century, citizens were already observing mankind’s influence on nature, mapping the earth’s surface, registering animal populations or astronomical phenomena, preserving historical monuments and archaeological work, enriching local research and writing art or literary treatises or encyclopaedias.[xv] Correspondingly, there are many personalities in the history of science who, without an academic education, have made outstanding contributions to the acquisition of knowledge.[xvi] For centuries, researching citizens have been an integral part of everyday research outside and inside institutions.[xvii] When evaluating the novelty value of citizen research, it should be remembered that those we today call scientists are, first and foremost, citizens. Scientists, despite their professionalization, by no means shed their civic interest and commitment, but often integrate it directly into their work. Through knowledge transfer, researchers are also always connected to society, culture, politics and economy. Knowledge transfer is never a one-way street from the research institutions to the world. It is, rather, a bi-directional process in which society, culture, politics and the economy respond to impulses from research and, conversely, impulses from economic, social, cultural and political contexts are taken up and processed by researchers. And even where a research project answers the question of relevance solely with a concern for the theoretical and/or methodological further development of a discipline, there is an indirect relationship with citizens in general, since only the continuous differentiation of a discipline or the processing of its theoretical and/or methodological desiderata maintains its ability to develop answers to changing social questions.

Figure 4 natural science: Does citizen science consist solely of natural science projects? Here is a photo of Märt Kose, which he produced together with biology students for the citizen science event Loodusvaatluste maraton. CC BY 4.0 Martyr Kose


Despite this, university research in the humanities was certified in 2016 that the participation of citizens is only slightly appreciated.[xviii] According to this diagnosis, it contrasts with the situation in the natural sciences, where appreciation for the contribution of citizen researchers is often marked. In the humanities, “the boundaries – often cherished by the scientific community – between professional research that generates new knowledge and the public that consumes this knowledge”[xix] was generally preserved. This assessment is supported by a recent study: according to this study, the majority (88.4 %) of the projects hosted on English and German language citizen science platforms in 2017 can be attributed to the natural sciences.[xx] However, Lisa Pettibone and David Ziegler, as well as the author of the study, Barbara Hanisch, point out that the discrepancy between natural sciences and humanities is partly due to the fact that in those cases where the humanities work with citizens, the term “citizen science” is not used. In the humanities a different terminology has evolved. For example, the terms participatory research or public history are used.[xxi] If the accusation of a lack of openness for citizen science projects is indeed true, then this circumstance can at least be positively transformed in practice. Thus, it can be reasonably stated that we still havegreat potential for citizen science[xxii] in the humanities and thus also in film and media studies.

My conceptualization

In the project The cinematic face of the city of Potsdam, I oriented myself to the broad definitions of citizen science. As a professional researcher, I invited citizens of Potsdam, as experts of their city, to participate in a specific data collection process, to (partially) analyze this data with me and to develop practical guidelines for urban planning. I understand the project as a citizen research project, although the development of the research question and the formation of theses, the development of the research design, the question of data management as well as large parts of the analysis and theoretical reflection lie with me. Citizens are therefore only involved in parts of the research cycle. I do not define citizen research as an independent scientific discipline like Film or Media studies, which is why I prefer in German the term “Bürger_innenforschung” and “Bürgerforscher_innen” respectively “citizen research” and “citizen researchers” to “Bürger_innenwissenschaft” (citizen science) and “Bürger_innenwissenschaftler” (citizen scientists). I also do not see citizen research as a method like film analysis, for example, but as a principle – like inter- and transdisciplinarity. It seems to me that citizen research potentially combines two important qualities of these two principles: on the one hand, different knowledge stocks and perspectives are brought together in order to generate new knowledge (interdisciplinarity), on the other hand, cooperation challenges existing notions of science on the part of the researching citizens and on the part of professional researchers (transdisciplinarity). Of course, this comparison is misleading because the citizen researchers do not represent a defined “discipline” that brings their specific methods and practiced critical reflection approaches into a joint research process, but in the ideal case, citizen research leads to similar results as inter- and transdisciplinary research processes: to the generation of knowledge that cannot be developed in a mono-disciplinary academic research design, and to the constructive questioning of the academic and social rules and especially the forms of interaction between science and society.

A too narrow definition – which for example reproach the platform Zooniverse for not doing “real citizen research” with the projects posted here, because the initiatives are primarily from scientists and because they are in charge and citizens are mainly invited to generate data[xxiii] – is problematic for one reasons: narrow definitions frightens those who still have to familiarize themselves with citizen research and who, wisely, first decide on manageable projects in order to gain security for more complex projects.

Figure 5 Zooniverse: Can one reproach Zooniverse for not doing real citizen research with the projects posted here, because the initiatives are primarily from scientists and because they are in charge and citizens are mainly invited to generate data?


Incidentally, the factor of “gaining in security” applies not only to the scientists but also to the citizens themselves. If we take into account that the majority of citizens have never participated in a citizen research project, it might be a sensible approach for scientists to initially avoid large or complex projects and to begin with smaller, short duration, low-threshold and immediately effective projects, in order to gradually increase the number of active participants. I do not advocate a long-term insistence on Citizen Science light”[xxiv] – this is how my project could be classified – but I do see it as a necessary (intermediate) step for scientists and citizens alike to get to know the approach and to make it common to the solution of both small and large problems.

In the next blog entry I will present my project The cinematic face of the city of Potsdam and show how I dealt with the basic requirements as formulated in various guidebooks and guidelines for citizen Science projects.

[i] Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (London: John Calder, 1983), 7.

[ii] Núria Bautista-Puig, Daniela De Filippo, Elba Mauleón, Elías Sanz-Casado, “Scientific Landscape of Citizen Science Publications: Dynamics, Content and Presence in Social Media” in Publications, 7(1), 12 (2019), 1–22, 1.

[iii] See e.g.: Peter Finke, “Citizen Science und die Rolle der Geisteswissenschaften für die Zukunft der Wissenschaftsdebatte” in Kristin Oswald, René Smolarski (eds.), Bürger Künste Wissenschaft: Citizen Science in Kultur und Geisteswissenschaften (Gutenberg: Computus Druck Satz & Verlag, 2016), 31–56.

[iv] See ibid., 48.

[v] See e.g. the participation pyramids in OpenScientist and in Aletta Bonn et al, Green Paper Citizen Science Strategy 2020 for Germany (Leipzig, Berlin, 2016), 17. See e.g.: Paul Ayris, Alea López de San Román, Katrien Maes, Ignasi Labastida, Open Science and its role in universities: A roadmap for cultural change (Leuven, 2018), 20–21 and Daniel Wyler, François Grey, Citizen science at universities: Trends, guidelines and recommendations (Leuven, 2016), 3.

[vi] See e.g.: Andrea Wiggins, Kevin Crowston, “Surveying the citizen science landscape” in First Monday, 20(1), 2015.

[vii] See e.g.: Montserrat Prats López, Managing Citizen science in the Humanities: The challenge of ensuring quality, Amsterdam 2017, 1.

[viii] Wyler, Grey, Citizen science at universities, 4.

[ix] European Citizen Science Association (ECSA), Ten Principles of Citizen Science, September 2015.

[x] See ibid. and Bonn et al, Green Paper Citizen Science Strategy 2020 for Germany, 13; See on the difficulty of drawing boundaries Lisa Pettibone, David Ziegler, “Citizen Science: Bürgerforschung in den Geistes- und Kulturwissenschaften” in Oswald, Smolarski (eds.), Bürger Künste Wissenschaft, 57–69, 64.

[xi] See Ayris et al, Open Science and its role in universities, 21; Wyler et al, Citizen science at universities, 3 and 5; Pettibone, Ziegler Citizen Science, 58 and Wiggins, Crowston, Surveying the citizen science landscape.

[xii] See Mordechai (Muki) Haklay, Suvodeep Mazumdar, Jessica Wardlaw, “Citizen science for Observing and Understanding the Earth” in Pierre-Philippe Mathieu, Christoph Aubrecht (eds.), Earth Observation Open Science and Innovation (Cham: Springer Open, 2018) 69–88, 72–73 and Bonn et al, Green Paper Citizen science Strategy 2020 for Germany, 14–15.

[xiii] See. Pettibone, Ziegler, Citizen Science, 58–59.

[xiv] Haklay et al, Citizen science for Observing and Understanding the Earth, 74.

[xv] Ibid., 70 and 75; see Pettibone, Ziegler: Citizen Science, 63 and 65; René Smolarski, Kristin Oswald Einführung: Citizen Science in Kultur und Geisteswissenschaften, in Oswald, Smolarski (eds.), Bürger Künste Wissenschaft, 9–27, 9; López, Managing Citizen science in the Humanities, 1; as well as Emu-Felicitas Ostermann-Miyashita et al, “Analysis of the current state of citizen science in Germany, based on 96 projects registered on the official website of the Federal Ministry for Education and Research” in Thomas Bartoschek, Daniel Nüst, Mario Pesch (eds.), Forum Citizen science 2019: Die Zukunft der Bürgerforschung (Münster 2019), 16–26, 17–18.

[xvi] Pettibone, Ziegler, Citizen Science, 58.

[xvii] See Bonn et al, Green Paper Citizen Science Strategy 2020 for Germany, 11.

[xviii] Smolarski, Oswald Einführung, 10.

[xix] Ibid., 12. [own translation]

[xx] Barbara Heinisch, “Vorherrschende Wissenschaftszweige auf deutsch-und englischsprachigen Citizen Science- Projektplattformen” in Bartoschek et al (eds.), Forum Citizen Science 2019, 40–52, 43–44.

[xxi] See Pettibone, Ziegler, Citizen Science, 63 and 65 as well as Heinisch, Vorherrschende Wissenschaftszweige auf deutsch-und englischsprachigen Citizen Science- Projektplattformen, 46–47.

[xxii] Finke, Citizen Science und die Rolle der Geisteswissenschaften für die Zukunft der Wissenschaftsdebatte, 33. [own translation]

[xxiii] Ibid., 42.

[xxiv] Ibid.

Anna Luise Kiss is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF and currently heads the BMBF-funded research project The cinematic face of cities. She is editor of the anthologyJede Menge Perspektiven. Der Regisseur Herrmann Zschoche (CineGraph Babelsberg, 2014) and – together with Dieter Chill – of Pathenheimer: Filmfotografin. DEFA Movie Stills (Ch. Links Verlag, 2016) and co-editor of the current issue of the FFK Journal (Avinus, 2020). Her dissertation Topografie des Laiendarsteller-Diskurses – zur Konstruktion von Laiendarstellerinnen und Laiendarstellern im Kinospielfilm (Springer VS) was published in March 2019. Also recently published was “Eine Medienwissenschaftlerin und eine Schauspielerin unterhalten sich über Performanz in ihrem beruflichen Alltag. Eine Text-Performance“ in Thomas Etzemüller (ed.) Der Auftritt. Performance in der Wissenschaft (transcript, 2019).

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