Quantifying online citizen science: Dynamics and demographics of public participation in science

PLoS One. 2023 Nov 21;18(11):e0293289. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0293289. eCollection 2023.


Citizen scientists around the world are collecting data with their smartphones, performing scientific calculations on their home computers, and analyzing images on online platforms. These online citizen science projects are frequently lauded for their potential to revolutionize the scope and scale of data collection and analysis, improve scientific literacy, and democratize science. Yet, despite the attention online citizen science has attracted, it remains unclear how widespread public participation is, how it has changed over time, and how it is geographically distributed. Importantly, the demographic profile of citizen science participants remains uncertain, and thus to what extent their contributions are helping to democratize science. Here, we present the largest quantitative study of participation in citizen science based on online accounts of more than 14 million participants over two decades. We find that the trend of broad rapid growth in online citizen science participation observed in the early 2000s has since diverged by mode of participation, with consistent growth observed in nature sensing, but a decline seen in crowdsourcing and distributed computing. Most citizen science projects, except for nature sensing, are heavily dominated by men, and the vast majority of participants, male and female, have a background in science. The analysis we present here provides, for the first time, a robust 'baseline' to describe global trends in online citizen science participation. These results highlight current challenges and the future potential of citizen science. Beyond presenting our analysis of the collated data, our work identifies multiple metrics for robust examination of public participation in science and, more generally, online crowds. It also points to the limits of quantitative studies in capturing the personal, societal, and historical significance of citizen science.

MeSH terms

  • Citizen Science*
  • Community Participation
  • Crowdsourcing*
  • Data Collection
  • Demography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male

Grants and funding

This study was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (www.snf.ch) through the ERC/SNSF Consolidator Grant (BSCGI0_157787), “The Rise of Citizen Science: Rethinking Public Participation in Science,” to BJS at the University of Geneva. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.