Open Participatory Research — Four Challenges for Opening Science Beyond Scientific Institutions

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Citation format: The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition

Göbel, Claudia. ‘Open Participatory Research — Four Challenges for Opening Science Beyond Scientific Institutions’, 2019.

Claudia Göbel proposes a framework of examination for how Citizen Science and other types of participatory research should form a more prominent part of the much needed cultural change in knowledge institutions. This is to complement the many reforms already underway in other areas of Open Science & Scholarship.

This text is an extension of a presentation given at the Barcamp Open Science, 2019 in Berlin, organised by the Leibniz Research Alliance Open Science. Ignition Talk ‘Participatory Research: Extending Open Science beyond the ivory tower’ (Göbel 2019).

Participatory research is usually not considered when talking about Open Science. However beyond the doors of academia — in cooperation with volunteers and civil society organisations — lays the potential for changing how research is done and how it can relate to society at large, for who it’s created and from which it’s supported. For this reason participatory research constitutes an important resource for opening science. I propose the concept of open participatory research to link debates in the communities around Citizen Science and Open Science on four current challenges in that field: pluralistic concepts, situated openness, questions of power and open organisations. I close by pointing out tools, resources, and places to look further information.

Participatory research can transform how and what we know and thus be a resource for opening science

Participatory research, that is when people who are not employed as scientists generate scientific knowledge – on their own, in groups or in cooperation with people who are employed as scientists. There are many different approaches and methodologies to participatory research with long traditions, such as Community-based Research, Participatory Action Research, Citizen Science, and DIY science.

Examples of concrete activities include:

  • Amateur naturalists collecting specimens and data on insect occurrence for ecological research, e.g. at Entomological Society Krefeld,
  • Volunteer computing in which people donate processor capacity of their computers for scientific studies, e.g. in the LHC@home projects from CERN,
  • Research in which people who are experts on a topic to be studied, due to their personal or professional experience, are part of defining research questions, and data gathering and analysis, e.g. a reference social science study mapping practices of solidarity economy actively involving farmers (Balázs, Patakia and Lazányiac 2016) or patients involved in health research
  • Generation of scientific knowledge based on self-reporting, for instance on online platforms such as patientslikeme,
  • Research involving practices of instrument building and making, such as DIY biology.

Participatory research can profoundly transform how and what we know. “In many cases, participatory research projects question who can produce legitimate scientific knowledge, how it is produced, where it is produced, and sometimes why it is produced. Thus, participatory research is not necessarily just ‘science by other means’, but could refocus what parts of the natural and social worlds are subject to scientific inquiry, thereby transforming what we know about the world” (Strasser et al. 2018, 2).

This transformative role of participatory research shows, for example, when residents in neighbourhoods with poor air quality use sensors to generate more and supplementary data to complement those of official measurement stations that are located elsewhere (Ottinger 2010) or when neglected or poorly studied diseases are researched due to members of patient organisations campaigning for, funding, and doing research in cooperation with academic researchers (Callon and Rabeharisoa 2003).

Since our current scientific institutions show severe shortcomings, for example in terms of inclusiveness and equity (Soleri et al. 2016), as well as symptoms of crisis regarding legitimation, reproducibility, fair attribution of effort and problems with performance measurement (Franzen 2016) participatory research could consequently be a fundamental part of efforts for improving and opening how research is done and what kind of knowledge is produced.

Four current challenges of open participatory research

The concept of “open participatory research” could help to stimulate such debates by linking streams of reflection and action from both participatory research and Open Science. Such a discourse can draw on various traditions from within these two fields mobilising concepts and practices to learn from, and critique to open new questions. I will use questions about open participatory research to look at current developments in the field of Citizen Science in Europe, which I consider as one branch of participatory research, that are relevant to both scholars who seek to advance their Open Science practice and institutions looking for ways to extend their infrastructures of support. Four important challenges at the interface between open and participatory research are:

  1. Using pluralistic concepts that are based on a diversity of participation practices and account for multiple possible contributions to science is essential to realise the transformative potential of participatory research. A large part of my work on Citizen Science in the last five years was concerned with terminology. Nearly every talk I gave or workshop we organised was followed by a discussion on how to define Citizen Science, where it starts and should end, the many reasons why this terminology is problematic (for a nuanced discussion Eitzel et al. 2017). A good definition is a useful tool to navigate the vast seas of participatory approaches to science and technology. For some purposes, giving orientation means clear indications of what is in and what is out, for example if you are running a national platform showcasing Citizen Science projects (Heigl et al. 2019). For other purposes, like it is mine to build inclusive communities and cooperation, orientation means getting a landscape view and sensitivity to where unusual and innovative developments occur. For this latter purpose Strasser et al. provide a definition for “the many ways in which members of the public have engaged and continue to engage in the production of scientific knowledge” (Strasser et al. 2018, 15). It rests on the five epistemic practices of: sensing, computing, analysing, self-reporting, and making (which have informed the examples of participatory research I have given in the previous section above) and encompasses various reference terms, like: Citizen Science, Participatory Action Research, and DIY science.
  2. Improving situated openness of data and projects is another key challenge. An important share of participatory research activities are dedicated to data gathering and analysis. Creating frameworks to improve data findability, accessibility, interoperability and reusability (FAIR-ness) is thus a major concern. A series of efforts are currently addressing standardisation and interoperability for Citizen Science project metadata and observation data. For instance, the working group supported by organisation European Cooperation in Science & Technology (COST) “Working Group 5 – Improve data standardization and interoperability” of the COST Action in Citizen Science has recently proposed an ontology for describing citizen-science projects, observations and analyses, building upon prior research and existing standards, which any organization can model their database structure upon. This proposal feeds into collaborations within the international working group on CS data and metadata that brings together practitioners from the European, US, and Australian Citizen Science associations along with project finder platforms like, the Atlas of Living Australia or the global biodiversity information facility GBIF. In addition to conceptual and technical issues, there are many legal and ethical questions regarding intellectual property and licensing, data protection and privacy, payments, and insurances in participatory research activities. Here, the EU project PANELFIT  addresses some of the uncertainties regarding participatory use of ICTs for research and journalism and the BMBF project GenomELECTION explores implications of new technologies for genome editing for science communication and participatory research.
  3. Addressing questions of power head-on and more thoroughly is a third important piece of the puzzle. Both Citizen Science and Open Science draw a lot of their visionary strength from hinting at concepts like participation, accessibility, and democracy, which are political in the sense that each community of practice interprets them through their own ideological glasses and associates them with different values. It is therefore important to critically interrogate the different approaches of participatory research regarding their historical, social, cultural, and political contexts: Which values are they based on? Which hierarchies and economic principles do their standards and technologies convey? Who benefits? The seven principles for an inclusive Open Science for social and environmental well-being from the Open and Collaborative Science in development Network (OCSDnet) offer a good start for provoking such reflections (and lots of literature to follow up on). To make this a focus of work, we have founded a working group on “Empowerment, Inclusiveness and Equity” in cooperation between the European Citizen Science Association and the Living Knowledge Network. The group brings together practitioners from the fields of Citizen Science and Community-based Research to exchange knowledge and co-develop methodologies. For instance, work is needed to build more equitable cooperations between scientists and volunteers (Soleri et al., 2016). We also still don’t know much about who participates in participatory research projects and who doesn’t, which makes it hard to improve inclusiveness of activities. The study “Science for all” by KIT and Science in Dialogue in Germany is one initiative looking to change that. A third dimension is to look at what experiences of empowerment exist and how they differ among different approaches to participatory research. For example, in a recent workshop we asked for the roles of NGOs in this regard.
  4. Building more open organisations is another central question in the larger task of adapting research infrastructures to participatory research. Doing Citizen Science, DIY science and working with communities also requires a shift in organisational cultures to allow working with people within and outside scientific institutions in new ways. For example, libraries can play an important role as support infrastructures for Citizen Science by providing access to knowledge resources and professional guidance on information and data management, meeting space as well as hosting CS equipment for lending and more. Arizona State University is for example undertaking some exciting cooperation initiatives with public libraries on Citizen Science. During the EU project Doing it Together science (DITOs) we have worked with practitioners from Citizen Science and DIY science communities to identify barriers, good practices and structural opportunities to work together in new ways (Göbel et al. 2017). This was also relevant to asking how European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) as European umbrella organisation for Citizen Science can become more accessible and inclusive. I’m just synthesising our work on making ECSA as well as other DITOs partners more open, which includes: universities, museums, science/art galleries, NGOs, media labs, and networks. The report will be available in summer, 2019.

These challenges, which have been central to my work in the past years and will surely be accompanied by many others, illustrate that there is plenty to do for harnessing participation in research as part of activities to open science.

Open Science concepts do currently not adequately address participatory research

Open Science communities, looking back already at some decades of network building, awareness raising, and advocacy work to improve accessibility, equity, and societal impact of research, could be forerunners to promote and shape such ideas of participatory research and help to realise them. For instance, participatory research could become a part of what are considered Open Science skills for researchers and figure more prominently in teaching programmes for this purpose. Contributions of volunteers to research could be made more visible through new metrics and open research infrastructures could be checked regarding how welcoming and fitting they are for members of the public and their research needs. Last but not least the vast experiences collected in awareness raising and organisational development at global, European, as well as local levels could be a valuable reservoir to inform efforts of establishing Citizen Science more profoundly in scientific institutions and the science policy landscape.

However, participatory research is only reluctantly addressed as dimension of Open Science by communities of practice and in political programmes, albeit there are potential synergies around accessibility, inclusiveness, and equity of research processes and results (Vohland and Göbel 2017). Discussions of Open Science usually stay within the realm of scientific institutions regarding the phenomena they consider. Their focus on openness through technology and the associated transformations in research infrastructures, scholarly communication, and scientific careers are debated without considering openness for participation. If participatory research is addressed — for instance Citizen Science has recently been included in the Open Science concepts of Wikimedia Germany and is part of the Open Citizen Science project of Open Knowledge Finland, it often remains unspecified what is meant by Citizen Science. Or ideas are too narrow, like in the case of the EU Open Science policy that uses Citizen Science for three types of activities: crowd support in data generation, crowd support in data analysis, and science education (Vohland and Göbel 2017). Such narrow concepts do not adequately reflect the richness of participatory research practice — active involvement of volunteers and civil society organisation in potentially all aspects of research in a broad range of scientific disciplines, not only in auxiliary tasks or dissemination and not only as supporters.

For realising the transformational potential mentioned above, it matters how participation, research and openness are conceptualised and done in practice. Too narrow concepts can be problematic. For instance in research funding contexts, if a one-sided focus on accessibility over inclusiveness and equity is biasing the development of a young field of research and innovation or when chances for improving the quality and use of results of participatory research work are foregone due to such a polarisation.

This indicates that there is room for sharing knowledge on recent developments in the area of participatory research as well as a need for critical debates regarding the values, implementation and blind spots of concepts like Citizen Science and Open Science. To be fair — at least the ECSA community in the field of Citizen Science is also rather slow to position itself towards Open Science (see for instance DITOs 2017). Spaces for exchange between communities of practice, like Open Science barcamps, the European Citizen Science Association, or the Gathering for Open Science Hardware, are essential for moving these discussions further.

More resources on Citizen Science


Slides of the original presentation given at the Barcamp Open Science, 2019 in Berlin, organised by the Leibniz Research Alliance Open Science.


Göbel, Claudia. ‘Participatory Research: Extending Open Science beyond the Ivory Tower – Open Science Barcamp 2019’, 30 April 2019.

Balázs, Bálint, György Patakia, and Orsolya Lazányiac. 2016. “Prospects for the future: Community supported agriculture in Hungary.” Futures 83:100-111. doi:

Strasser, Bruno, Jérôme Baudry, Dana Mahr, Gabriela Sanchez, Elise Tancoigne. “Citizen Science”? Rethinking Science and Public Participation. Submitted to: Science and Technology Studies, 2018.

Ottinger, Gwen. 2010. “Buckets of Resistance: Standards and the Effectiveness of Citizen Science.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 35 (2):244-270. doi:

Callon, Michael; Rabeharisoa, Vololona. 2003. “Research “In the Wild” and the Shaping of New Social Identities.” Technology in Society 25 (2):193-204. doi:

Daniela Soleri, Jonathan W. Long, Mónica D. Ramirez-Andreotta, Rose Eitemiller, and Rajul Pandya. 2016. “Finding Pathways to More Equitable and Meaningful Public-Scientist Partnerships.” Citizen Science: Theory and Practice 1 (1):1-11. doi:

Franzen, Martina. 2016. “Open Science als wissenschaftspolitische Problemlösungsformel?” In Handbuch Wissenschaftspolitik, edited by Simon D., Knie A., Hornbostel S. and Zimmermann K., 279-296. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Eitzel, M V, Jessica L Cappadonna, Chris Santos-Lang, Ruth Ellen Duerr, Arika Virapongse, Sarah Elizabeth West, Christopher Conrad Maximillian Kyba, Anne Bowser, Caren Beth Cooper, Andrea Sforzi, Anya Nova Metcalfe, Edward S Harris, Martin Thiel, Mordechai Haklay, Lesandro Ponciano, Joseph Roche, Luigi Ceccaroni, Fraser Mark Shilling, Daniel Dörler, Florian Heigl, Tim Kiessling, Brittany Y Davis, and Qijun Jian. 2017. “Citizen Science Terminology Matters: Exploring Key Terms.”  Citizen Science: Theory and Practice 2 (1):1. doi:

Heigl, Florian, Barbara Kieslinger, Katharina T. Paul, Julia Uhlik, and Daniel Dörler. 2019. “Opinion: Toward an international definition of citizen science.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116 (17):8089-8092. doi:

Göbel, C., Agnello, G., Baïz, I., Berditchevskaia, A., Evers, L., García, D., Pritchard, H., Luna, S., Ramanauskaite, E. M., Serrano, F., Boheemen, P. v., Völker, T., Wyszomirski, P., Vohland, K. 2017. European Stakeholder Round Table on Citizen and DIY Science and Responsible Research and Innovation. Doing-it-Together Science Report.

Vohland, Katrin, and Claudia Göbel. 2017. “Open Science und Citizen Science als symbiotische Beziehung? Eine Gegenüberstellung von Konzepten.”  TATuP 26 (1-2):18-24. doi:

DITOs consortium. 2017. Citizen Science and Open Science: Synergies and Future Areas of Work. DITOs policy brief 3.

Claudia Göbel

Posted by Claudia Göbel

Claudia Göbel is project manager at the European Citizen Science Association and guest researcher at Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. Her background is in Science and Technology Studies. She works on participatory research and Open Science — especially Citizen Science, open organisations, and policy engagement.

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