Dissertation

The abstract, contributions, and acknowledgements from my dissertation follow

Citizen Science: Framing the Public, Information Exchange, and Communication in Crowdsourced Science

Citizen science, the participation of non-scientists in scientific research, has grown over the last 20 years. The current study explores the communication frames used to describe citizen science and how they are created. It also investigates the effects of citizen science on the relationship between the public and science. It also situates citizen science in a larger historical context that critiques normal science and intersects with a number of other scholarly discussions including science and technology studies, citizenship, expertise, professionalism, and participation.

The dissertation draws on theory from the social worlds analysis of Anselm Strauss, framing in science communication, the philosophy of John Dewey on inquiry and the public, and the communicative action theory of Jurgen Habermas. It uses these theorists to build a potential analysis of the social impact of citizen science and the effects on science-public interaction.

The study examined 166 news articles, 13 press releases, and 10 interviews collected between July 2013 and April 2014. Situational analysis was used to analyze the material and to map the social arena of citizen science.

The results show that current communication frames used to study science communication do not adequately reflect the frames used with regard to citizen science. The most common frame promoted by researchers and staff involved with citizen science projects is educational. It also describes the tension within citizen science between emancipatory-participative and instrumental-pragmatic goals.

Contributions

The dissertation contributes to a number of current areas of interest to information scholars. First, the issue of data management, quality, and curation is increasingly important across disciplines. Quality, in particular, is a challenging issue for citizen science as it attempts to reach out to non-scientists in order to recruit them as volunteers, while, at the same time, persuading other researchers that the data gathered by volunteers is valuable for scientific investigation. The result is different communication frames used across multiple audiences. For example, scientists may emphasize to other scientists the instrumental-pragmatic value of a citizen science project by discussing the ability to collect more data than would otherwise be possible. But when speaking to the public the project may be framed as an emancipatory-participative opportunity for the public to talk back to scientists. Navigating these different visions of citizen science will determine the future of the citizen science movement as a whole.

Second, citizen science is both an outgrowth and a contributor to changes in the boundaries between experts and non-experts. Academic research in science and technology studies has been investigating the relationship between science and the public for the last forty years. Social movements of various stripes, for example the anti-vaccination and anti-genetically modified foods campaigns, have questioned the values of technoscience. Citizen science is an idealistic attempt to involve the public in the process of scientific investigation and thereby improve the public understanding of science. Information scientists should be interested in these changes because of the role they play in fostering the exchange of knowledge between different communities. The development of citizen science may herald new forms of interaction which information scientists can help to mediate.

Third, the dissertation tests some of the claims made by communication researchers who have studied science communication. In particular, the claim that mass media science communication uses a few common frames to explain science to the public. Much of this media research is based on the evaluation of elite media sources and the investigation of controversial technoscience topics, such as nuclear power or genetically modified organisms. The focus on a subset of media and controversy may result in a gap in much framing analysis. Citizen science, in part because of its novelty and lack of current controversy, shows some of these gaps in an inability to match previous science communication frames to this new field.

Fourth, citizen science raises a number of philosophical questions about the appropriate relationship between science and the public. The dissertation uses the communicative action theories of Habermas, the social worlds theory of Strauss, and the inquiry philosophy of Dewey to examine current practices and present some potential factors for evaluating the social impact of citizen science. In particular it suggests that the science is becoming more participative, that the public has a right to be involved in technoscientific decision-making, and that access to scientific research through citizen science contributes to democracy.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my family, friends, and colleagues who have made this experience possible.

My four committee members were each influential in their own way. Carol Tenopir is a respected researcher from whom I learned a lot about managing research projects and collaborating with others. Mark Littmann provided a wonderful historical perspective on science communication and was also a very pleasant collaborator. Harry Dahms, in sociology, introduced me to social theory at a research level. Suzie Allard, my committee chair, has been an ally since the first year I arrived. She has supported my quirky interests and helped to incorporate them under the umbrella of communication and information studies. All four of them have become friends and colleagues.

There is a long list of teachers who have made this possible. William Merrier, Phil Abalan, Roman Borgerding, Michael Della Rocca, Paul Edwards, Steve Jackson, and many more. Thanks for all the help.

My friends and cohort colleagues at University of Tennessee who supported me throughout the grad student years. From Sciencelinks2 Jim Malone, Priyanki Sinha, David Sims, Elizabeth Noakes, and Lisa Acuff. From CCI Scott Eldredge, Betsy Dortch, Ivanka Pjesivac, Iveta Imre, Nate Evans, and Hyuk Jun Cheong.

I am also grateful to the Institute for Museum and Library Services for providing funding for my Ph.D. education through the Sciencelinks2 grant, and to DataONE for helping me build my professional and intellectual network.