A Journal to Advance Citizen Science: an Interview with Caren Cooper

Detail of a photo of the Cascade Butterfly Project in Mt. Rainier National Park. Photo credit: Kevin Bacher. Click for more information.
Crop of a photo of the Cascade Butterfly Project, Mt. Rainier National Park. Photo credit: Kevin Bacher. Click for details.

Science communication and citizen science have a lot in common – namely, the desire to engage with people both inside and outside of the traditional science community. But where science communication is often seeking only to educate or to get folks interested in science, citizen science is trying to get people actively involved in the scientific process.

Citizen science can take many forms – from “games with a purpose,” such as Phylo, to projects that have people collecting ants from their neighborhoods.

And while citizen science efforts can focus on exploring scientific questions in a wide variety of fields, there are certain questions and challenges that are specific to citizen science itself. In other words, researchers engaged in citizen science can learn a lot from each other – regardless of whether they work in the same discipline.

Now there’s a journal devoted specifically to citizen science. The open-access journal, Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, was launched in December 2014. According to its website, the journal “focuses on advancing the field of citizen science by providing a venue for citizen science researchers and practitioners – scientists, information technologists, conservation biologists, community health organizers, educators, evaluators, urban planners, and more – to share best practices in conceiving, developing, implementing, evaluating, and sustaining projects that facilitate public participation in scientific endeavors in any discipline.”

To learn more, I talked to Caren Cooper, one of the journal’s co-editors-in-chief. (And, yes, the journal is already accepting submissions.)

Communication Breakdown: Before we talk about the new journal, I’d like give you a chance to introduce yourself to readers. What is your academic background, and what are you doing now?

Caren Cooper: I am an ecologist. I earned my BS from North Carolina State University, my MS from the University of Wyoming, and my PhD from Virginia Tech. I spent 13 years doing research and advancing citizen science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I recently moved to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, where I’m the assistant director of the Biodiversity Research Lab. My new research and science communication program, The Counter Culture, places heavy emphasis on citizen science. Also, I’m a senior fellow in the Environmental Leadership Program, in which I began writing a non-academic book about citizen science with The Overlook Press.

CB: What is your role at Citizen Science?

Cooper: I’m one of four co-editors-in-chief for the inaugural issue. I was co-chair of the committee that created the journal. We are bringing together a great editorial board and laying the ground work for a productive and sustainable journal.

CB: Who came up with the idea for the new journal, and when did discussions heat up about making it a reality?

Cooper and Thoreau. (Cooper's on the right.) Photo courtesy of Caren Cooper.
Cooper and Thoreau. (Cooper’s on the right.) Photo courtesy of Caren Cooper.

Cooper: Several years ago, a group of about 200 or so practitioners of citizen science, from many different disciplines, gathered prior to the Ecological Society of America conference in Portland, Oregon. The meeting was highly participatory and included creating a list of priorities for this newly forming community of practice. The meeting led to the formation of the Citizen Science Association (CSA). At the meeting, working groups formed for many of the priorities, including a journal committee for developing a scholarly venue for sharing perspectives, research, practices, etc. The journal committee explored many options, had an online community discussion, and surveyed the new CSA membership for input. We concluded that the community would benefit from an open-access, double-blind, peer-reviewed (and peer can mean many things in a citizen science context) journal, as affordable as possible.

CB: What was the impetus for a journal focused exclusively on citizen science research – was there a gap in the publishing market?

Cooper: Sometimes the language is difficult when talking about publishing related to citizen science, because citizen science leads to scientific discoveries that are published and citizen science itself is a focus of a great deal of research that is published. We heard from many people that they didn’t know where to publish the latter – the research about the practice of citizen science. If the study was primarily about learning, then it might fit into an education journal. If the study was primarily about communication, then it might fit into a communication journal. And on and on for informatics, human-computer interactions, psychology, science and technology studies, etc. But many people felt that their studies didn’t quite fit those journals and would be more relevant to citizen science practitioners in other fields than to colleagues in their own disciplines.

CB: How often will Citizen Science be published, and do you think there is enough research on citizen science to provide good content for the journal on an ongoing basis?

Cooper: We’ll release the first set of papers as an inaugural issue, but after that papers will be released as they are ready, and then bundled later into issues for archiving purposes. The journal is exclusively online and not print.

CB: Who has been involved in bringing the journal to life?

Cooper: We’ve had a committee of people, in the U.S. and Europe, who have helped build the journal. Rick Bonney and I co-chaired the committee, which included Heidi Ballard, Muki Haklay, Rebecca Jordan, Jonathan Eisen, Lucy Fortson, Holly Menninger, Pietro Michelucci, Karen Oberhauser, Jonathan Silvertown, and Katrin Vohland.

CB: Who provided start-up funds for the journal, and how will it be funded in the long term?

Cooper: There are no start-up funds. Ubiquity Press does not charge to start a journal. They charge a fee per article, which is very low compared to other publishers. The editors-in-chief and the editorial board members are all volunteering their time. As will reviewers. We’ll adapt the budget model in these early years to make sure publication fees are never a barrier to publishing.

CB: How did you settle on Ubiquity Press as the publisher for the journal?

Cooper: Ubiquity Press is a start-up company out of University College London. It was created by academics who were dissatisfied with the big open-access publishing companies. They use Open Journal System software that provides all the functionality we need and they provide managerial support as well. Our committee had discussions about whether it was necessary to use a publisher with a well-known reputation, and debated whether it mattered because this field has been marginalized in the past. Several of the bigger publishers were seeking a contract with us. But publishers with strong reputations have high overhead and high publishing fees. Ultimately we decided that having a strong editorial board, combined with a strong community, were the two most important ingredients for the journal to establish a great reputation.

CB: The journal’s site offers an overview of what it hopes to publish – namely research on “best practices in conceiving, developing, implementing, evaluating, and sustaining projects that facilitate public participation in scientific endeavors in any discipline.” Could you flesh that out a little bit, and tell me about the type of research that the journal hopes to publish?

Cooper: There are many disciplines that are carrying out research to better understand the phenomenon of citizen science and how it works and how to make it work better. Social scientists study what motivates and sustains participation. Others evaluate learning outcomes. Others document policy changes. Others create advances in cyberinfrastructure. Studies of the role of social networks, the efficacy of gamification, analyses of ethical issues, dimensions of data quality, techniques of data visualizations, etc. Citizen science practice is an active research area in many disciplines and there is a broad range of research that we hope will be submitted to the journal.

CB: What sort of fees can authors expect to pay if their work is accepted for publication in Citizen Science?

Cooper: The fee for publishing a paper is 500 British pounds. If authors are unable to afford the fee, then reductions and waivers are available. [Editor’s note: as of January 23, 2015, £500 was equal to $750.64, or €665.37.]

CB: Citizen science and science communication are often mentioned in the same breath, but I don’t think the link between those two subjects is clear to many people. Could you explain how you think citizen science and science communication are connected?

Cooper: Citizen science is research, and leads to great discoveries. Citizen science is education, and leads to increased science literacy. Citizen science can support environmental justice, and lead to community action. I think citizen science is able to be these things and more, and produce so many different types of outcomes, because it is a special form of science communication. It is so far from the deficit model (of one-way communication) that I think most people don’t recognize citizen science as a type of science communication. Citizen science can function like a dialogue between scientists and the lay public, not necessarily in the format of a conversation, but as a complex set of interactions among people engaged in different roles but working towards common goals. I think those who specialize in science communication are just starting to realize that they can help figure out how to best shape that complex set of interactions called citizen science.

CB: What are your short-term goals for Citizen Science – what are you hoping it can accomplish over the next couple of years?

Cooper: We haven’t set any goals in terms of metrics of success based on papers published. We are providing a service to the CSA community and will be successful if practitioners read the journal, submit papers to the journal, and as a result the practice of citizen science around the globe continues to improve. One of my goals is that the journal functions to cross-pollinate ideas and practices across the different disciplines carrying out research in collaboration with members of the public. I hope it helps to unite these different disciplines, which don’t necessarily use the term citizen science.

CB: Do you have any advice for researchers hoping to contribute to Citizen Science, or is there anything you’d like them to do?

Cooper: Know that your audience is practitioners just like you. The framing of papers to advance citizen science per se, rather than advancing your discipline (though that will happen too).

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One thought on “A Journal to Advance Citizen Science: an Interview with Caren Cooper

  1. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Morsels For The Mind – 30/01/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

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