Citizen sciences and Responsible Research and Innovation: opening science is an amplifier

“A literature study of two opening science frameworks, Citizen Sciences and Responsible Research and Innovation.”

Summary of the master thesis: This paper started with some questions from a student in Techno-Anthropology, progressing  on the field in a Citizen-Science project. Because he was wondering what C-S are, he decided to do a literature review on C-S and then link it with R.R.I Responsible Research and Innovation, since they are two opening sciences frameworks.

At the very beginning, I was studying a project bridging anglers and scientists in Switzerland ( the CoFish project). There were in the discussions and papers around the project a lot of new words that I didn’t know ( citizen-science, co-creation etc.) and people involved around CoFish seem to like what they mean. I was a bit confused and felt on my side the need to unravel the meaning of these overused words and breakup with first wrong good impressions, common sense, by reading articles on the topic. Doing this, I had some luggage:

  • A keen interest for science-society relationship, science management and epistemology
  • Some readings about R.R.I (Responsible Research and Innovation)

I had discussions with my supervisor on how to sort or select relevant articles regarding this topic. He has the academic habit of applying a standardized and transparent methodology to describe how he chooses articles. On my side, I would say the most important thing to keep in mind is that the methods used say as much about the context of the fieldwork as the researcher’s strategy. It is also a way to control the data flow rather than to dive into chaos.

Giving an example for the first literature review, I was, for instance, not using a standardized methodology, relying on an inductive and iterative dialogue between the field and theory and finding articles from exchanges, emails, discussions, bibliographies etc. I was trying to take advantage of the short time that I had in the field to collect as much data I can ( ref : Short Ethnography Pink and Morgan 2013). Then when I did the literature review on R.R.I. s, as well for citizen-literacy, my sources of puzzlement were already more mature and I had more time to think to theorize, so I applied a deductive approach by defining queries. You will find more details in the PDF provided regarding the methodology and the entire bibliography, but overall, the articles rely on these three categories.

  1. Citizen science: iterative dialog with the field and theory, 21 articles.
  2. R.R.I:  standardized methodology ( query+ network map): 6 articles + 2 on education + 4 on ethics. –> ”Responsible innovation” OR  “responsible research and innovation”, 384 results on Ebscohost
  3. Citizen literacy : query, 4 articles –> “Citizen science” AND “Scientific literacy” 5580 results  on Google scholar.

Researchers can still do the so-called “cherry-picking” by applying a standardized methodology. An article is often full of information, and it is impossible, even quite silly, to keep everything after reading it. They should rather delineate the information that they are interested in.

Here the focus has been decided quite quickly. After three or four articles read, I pointed out that there were a lot of definition issues. Thus while reading the articles, I focused on definition challenges and awareness around beliefs. I took this inspiration from Bachelardian epistemology and Ethno-psychoanalysis (G.Devereux). This is also an academic habit, but I am ready to discuss and be challenged regarding this.

Then step by step, after readings, exchanges and events, and organizing my notes on C-S, I framed my problem statement and decided to link it with R.R.I ( Responsible Research and Innovation). This framework is also seeking to open science to the public and I found relevant to compare their literature.

To conclude, I see a bit the way until the problem statement like a trip, going to the unknown, being stuck sometimes, trying to don’t be taken by the stream of information, and finally arriving somewhere that might be relevant or not 🙂

Problem statement

What are the current epistemological and practical challenges regarding the science-society relationship from two recent opening frameworks, Citizen Sciences and Responsible Research and Innovation, R.R.I.?

1-The challenge of the coherence

The first part focuses mainly on C-S and what is C-S. At the beginning of the study, I did not know that I would find links to R.R.I. But by unravelling the topic, I found similarities that helped me to make sense of the readings. The first challenge that this paper identifies is the challenge of coherence. There is no epistemological coherence in C-S with different stances and a lack of clarity (particularly revealed by the use of ambivalent words and vague concepts). I display the challenge of coherence in three categories:

  • Clarity: The first distinction Irwin-Bonney that was helping me to make sense of the projects is no longer enough because dimensions overlap. Apparently, there would be projects involving the public in science to “empower” them (public engagement, community-driven projects –> Irwin) and others to educate them about science ( public education –> Bonney).
  •  Harmony:  while reading about R.R.I and C-S you will easily point out that there are divergent positions with a lot of definitions, typologies and overlapping dimensions. Haklay and al 2021 did for instance a map of 35 definitions from institutions. The definitions in articles state what is expected, what must be done and why within projects. Not surprisingly, people, countries and disciplines have different definitions or interpretations,  ontological and epistemological stances. Today, choosing one definition more than another says just as much about the authors’ motivations as the institutional and disciplinary framework and cultural context in which they operate. Then different typologies exist, but they also do not translate what C-S projects are. Some typologies focus on activities, others on participation degrees, for instance.
  • Practical: There is a need for project leaders to position themselves on definitions used and on stances. ( Riesh and al, 2013). It is often impossible to do a deep scientific project and broad public engagement simultaneously and there are also different expectations from participants. Finally, participants in this kind of project cannot avoid asking themselves some fundamental questions about what they expect from a project, how it should be implemented and overall, to shed light on the personal and institutional objectives pursued. Clarifying this point would make it easier for them to choose a definition or to map the project to an institutional framework, as presented in the article of Haklay et al. (2021).

This first part states the challenge of coherence from differences of conceptions within C-S. Some insights allow us to catch discrepancies. Then C-S are more discussed in certain disciplines and in some countries/places than others. Thus the second part tries to make sense of the coherence challenges by contextualizing the C-S framework. The goal is to explain its trend and history, the reasons why and how the opening of science to the public is a topic of discussion from disciplines, but also from countries, in the light of the latest European framework that has sought to promote public participation in Europe:  Responsible Research and Innovation: R.R.I.

2-Genesis and evolution of C-S and Public participation in science (including R.R.I):

C-S has been a trendy topic since 2010s, and many factors could explain it : new environmental challenges, the development of the internet, more educated citizens with more free time and the crisis of confidence leading to open science to the public. But not all C-S have the same roots. To make sense of the stances within R.R.I and C-S, I propose three archetypes/stances:

  • (Open) / Rhizome people: science is not not seen as neutral and must be distributed (counter cultural movements, S.T.S scholars, naturalists that clearly agree about this.)
  • (Traditional)/ Tree people : science must be more “open” and connected to societal  challenges but should stay neutral and hierarchical (mostly naturalist scientists/institutions)
  • Brand new people: these areas are full of enthusiastic people about “opening science”,  they want to change the world but they don’t yet know how to do it (Silvertown, 2009) . They like it but need to train themselves to get the political ethical stakes of their approaches.  It is quite hard and takes time to have a clear idea of their stances. ( potentially tree and rhizome people)

This typology works as well for R.R.I. C-S and R.R.I. are both meta-frameworks that allow different stances interested in the science-society relationship. Their main characteristic is that by opening research to the public, they play the role of an amplifier, reinforcing pre-existing norms, values, beliefs, and ideologies. The hypothesis here is that the two main ideologies are rhizome and tree, (but you might find others).

The rhizome model has its roots in the cultural movements of the 1970s. The tree model finds its origins in the traditions of naturalists from the 19th century (amateur naturalists’ tradition, recording and compiling data on flora and fauna). These projects are amplified by the rise of new technologies, forums, more educated people and also by European frameworks (in the case of Europe), which seek to open science to the public by putting research at its heart.

Then R.R.I. and C-S are emerging and overlapping, particularly in their efforts to open science and/or innovation to the public. These two movements come from different areas and disciplines and are not operationalized for the same reasons. One seems above all focused on science, the other on innovations. However, both are not isolated from engagement challenges and science-society relationships. Therefore, the two meta-frameworks are part of a movement of openness with efforts at transparency and dialogue amplified by the crisis of confidence but which are translated in different directions today.

Disagreements are not clearly displayed, and the use of slogans cultivates this epistemological vagueness. There are many cases of abuse of language. Terms like ethics, democratization, and science are overused. They should be manipulated cautiously and consciously, especially for newcomers. For instance, this part introduced some challenges regarding a notion like ethics (the same work needs to be done about science and democracy and even ecology). Concerning democracy, positions like Irwin’s one are rather clear ( he is a rhizome guy) since it is based on authors such as Habermas, and Marcuse, in short, close to critical theories and therefore to a model of deliberative democracy. Some models could follow a liberal democracy perspective (with representatives).

This is why it is necessary to clarify the disagreements, as well as the consensus, to guarantee a certain clarity and quality in R.R.I and C-S rather than hiding them. If these questions are not clear to participants and organizers, it will be then necessary to invite specialists in ethical and political philosophy or disciplines mentioned. They will be able to explain the positioning issues to the uninitiated, as Boenik and Kudina (2020) and Stahl et al. (2016) did regarding ethics.

In this second part, the opening  of science appears to be a somewhat a magical solution to environmental, societal, economical and educational issues. But my stance here is that openness is, before all, an amplifier.

Because in the CoFish project, I had to assess impacts in terms of learning, the following part intends to pursue these arguments of a magical solution and of this amplification effect in C-S and R.R.I., with a focus on education.

3-Education in R.R.I and C-S

The current educational movement within R.R.I. and C-S seems to agree on a critique of rote learning and non-contextual knowledge. The solution envisioned is to bring people practicing the inquiry process. Overall, today the European Union has a double objective: to create a scientific citizenship, (open to science) by training reflective citizens and engineers and by attracting young people to science and/or innovation.

To assess the learning outputs, a triptych is regularly used: attitudes, understanding of scientific inquiry/process and understanding of concepts. These dimensions take into consideration that the participants in these programs are not empty slates in order to consider how the projects may impact their epistemological knowledge and beliefs. The success or failures of projects then can be finally linked with numerous factors, like the feeling of belonging to a community but the profile of the participants as well. Even if the articles read seem optimistic, it seems that the projects are above all, amplifiers of pre-existing learnings and attitudes. In fact they would interest, above all “educated” people, and/or with rather positive representations of sciences. Also, there are practical challenges that go beyond the question of the degree of participation:

  • The motivations and expectations of the actors:  if the goal is to link science and society, it is also necessary to be interested in what motivates scientists and as well participants.Today  C-S and the R.R.I fail to interest all audiences. Then if there is a hope to empower, the question is to identify and interest disable communities.Concerning a classroom setting, it is also necessary to succeed in interesting the teachers, to make projects fitting in their concrete practices, and the students as well as their cognitive dispositions for an optimal implementation.  They can both have many constraints related to the realities of their practices (time, budget, programs etc.)
  • Training or not training: The management of the teachers’s training and students or scientists/participants  must be established in advance with them regarding what they want to know or what they need to know in this collaboration.The feeling of belonging to a community: The articles of Phillips et al (2019) shows that factors such as the feeling of belonging to a collective,  play a big role in motivation and commitment and ultimately in learning.  The group leader also plays an important role here and technologies can mediate these factors by online discussions, by amplifying the information sharing for instance . (forum,modeling etc.).
  • The “brain economy”: Particular attention must be paid in Western countries to the attention economy. The inquiry process requires a high cognitive investment which is not compatible in a society full of architectures draining attention.

Diagram to simplify

    The part one has underlined the coherence challenge. There are different stances in C-S and R.R.I., that are rather fuzzy. The second part by evoking the history and the cultures of opening science movements, identificates two stances allowing to unravel a part of the fuzziness  ( The rhizome culture and and the tree culture). These archetypes are thought viable for C-S and R.R.I. The following diagram, “opening science is an amplifier”, summarizes it. Within the academic discussions, two archetypal fields seek to face challenges listed here into four overlapping categories (environmental, societal economical, and educational challenges). Aside from this, the part 2 has also shown  that Europe seeks to promote openness through different paradigms in a context where there are more educated citizens with new technologies and free time.



The first and the second part of this thesis gradually show that C-S and R.R.I. are recent meta-frameworks advocating for the opening of research to the public in a context of loss of confidence in the stability of the world and in institutions. Two dominant archetypes are then delimited concerning the sciences in this paper (in part 2). The “rhizome” corresponds to a criticism of the disciplinary, hierarchical order. The “tree” is seeking to reconnect the science-society relationship, while keeping the idea that the scientific questions and its compounds are mainly the domain of its practitioners. In short, the questions  around steering research are political (from the Greek “politikos”). That is to say, by definition the tree and the rhizome are two moral stances on  how to organize life in the city, and more specifically here, about how to build, to think the science-society relationship.

Starting from the principle that openness is an amplifier, the question arises of what type of model, collectives and societies wish to amplify or define as being a “good model”. Different people express stances concerning these questions within C-S and R.R.I without necessarily being aware of it. Opinions diverge on how to “live well in society” and ensure that science does “good”, which are metaphysical concepts. For some in C-S and R.R.I, sciences must serve above all the interests of the populations and especially the “dominated”. For others, science must remain neutral but more open and understandable for the public. At this very point, the philosopher Hannah Arendt observed that political and ethical questions are closely linked, so there is a need to shed light on the relation between the two.

Then in these articles about C-S and R.R.I., people talk and try to define what they do with big words and slogans. Their endeavor is conceptually and methodologically weak, it’s fuzzy, and it makes it hard to identify the stances or on what the methods rely on. The case of Irwin remains an exception: it is easy to identify his inspirations, positioning, reflection and thought in the tradition of other thinkers. Overall, C-S and R.R.I. are both frameworks bringing the science-society relationship at their heart but have failed to make people think about major metaphysical questions or approach them with methodology.

In the part 3 about education, from the articles read, there is scarce mention in C-S and R.R.I projects or main definitions used, about big essential questions, like what is science? What is a good society? What is ethics ? What is sustainability etc. ? There is a need to dedicate more time to this, this is why I often conclude my parts by calling to involve more thoughts and more philosophers of ethics or science in C-S and R.R.I.

Thus, an interesting beginning might be to wonder why to think? What does thinking mean? And how we should think about the science-society relationship. This third part, which is quite long, takes the time to show that in C-S and R.R.I there is a need to think, to judge. It has two arguments:

  • There is a link between metaphysical, ethical and political questions.
  • A society with responsible citizens able to judge, and able to link rationalism and empiricism  is viable.

1-Hannah Arendt, more responsibility in opening science movements: 

With Hannah Arendt, we can understand that C-S and R.R.I. are about the relationship between science and society. People involved in C-S or R.R.I. try to foster a good relationship between science and society. Or the question of the “good” is an ethical question (ethics means habits and customs.). Following Hannah Arendt, what might be a viable relationship between science-society, is a society with responsible people, which could be important since these frameworks use a lot of slogans or tools that we do not know on what they rely on. From her, responsibility is a consequence of the ability to think. Someone who can judge, think, and question axioms is responsible. Even in a collective, an individual is responsible for his actions (to support a collective, for instance). Everyone can do it by talking with the inner voice and the world around, questioning axioms.

If the concept of responsibility is so important for our societies is because Hannah Arendt has looked at what happened during the second world war, and analyzed the issues of the evil banality: a society where people do not think by themselves about metaphysical questions, where values are just exchangeable, is dangerous.

Then what she describes is also a healthy way to think about science. Science also lack reflective practitioners able of questioning their habits, values, and axioms.  The philosopher of science, Gaston Bachelard, at this very subject has proposed a theory of science that links reflection to the world of experience.

2-Bachelard and the inquiry process

If the first point defines a viable criterion for the society and the science-society relationship, with the concept of “responsibility” from thought. This second point intends to give a viable framework for what is understood as science in “C-S” or for research in R.R.I. Bachelard’s conception of science is interdisciplinary and also defines what should be a process of scientific inquiry by delimiting the obstacles that the scientific mind will have to overcome in order to produce objective scientific knowledge. This part, relying on Bachelard, therefore, seeks to propose a definition of science, and to give hints on what should be a good inquiry process.

From Bachelard, science is abstraction, the fact does not speak for itself: there is a step of translation from reality, the “abstraction”. A scientific spirit is going through three steps:

  • The concrete state:  The reality is at chao state. The spirit meeting this reality is not empty, is full of desires, wrong good intuitions, opinions, unconscious desires. The scientist will have to resist them and think about how to analyze it.
  • The concrete-abstract state: The scientific mind will use theories, laws and diagrams to make sense of reality. The scientific spirit will have to choose  and be able to justify its uses of measures, diagrams, laws.
  • The abstract state: The scientific mind realizes abstractions from reality, the phenomenon observed is  not exactly the reality anymore, the scientific mind has neglected what can be neglected and produced an abstraction that he thinks is faithful and relevant.

Because the abstraction (tool, law, theory etc.) will neglect a part of reality, it will show only an aspect of the reality and constructs the scientific phenomenon ( science is a phenomenotechnic). This is why the scientist must justify the relevance of the method-problem relation.

From this stance, obstacles to relevant knowledge are rather cognitive. The concept of epistemological obstacle is very important with Bachelard. To make sense of reality, scientists must fight against their desires, habits, and nature. They understand by resisting.

We have in this proposition, a scientist that might be able to justify his/her abstraction from reality, to question his/hers axioms, habits, desires . This is in this way that C-S and R.R.I. should be enacted, or assessed. 


The thesis to identifies challenges common to C-S and R.R.I.:

Coherence and fuzziness challenges: there are different stances to identify or to clarify with the help of philosophers and epistemologists. A proposition is made with the archetypes ( tree and rhizome).

There are of course more “practical challenges” in C-S and R.R.I, like how to motivate new participants, the time constraints, curriculum, budgets.  But still overall, even regarding practical challenges there is a need to clarify stances purposes upstream to not go into different directions in the same project.

I would finally say that this thesis follows two purposes. The first one is to shed light on the stances within C-S and R.R.I.The second agenda is  normative , fostering “responsibility”. If I call to involve more philosophers of science or ethic in these frameworks, is because I would like to foster a third stance, which is a reflective and anti-dogmatic approach. I mean, I am fine with every stances in science, until you are aware of yours, and can justify the relevance of the statements or tools that you will use. For this, as a scientist or citizen scientist, you will have to know on what rely your practices, thoughts, axioms, beliefs etc.

Regarding this, I am often disappointed while talking with my co-workers, which can have a “religious” approach to science. Who did not hear, for instance, statements like “everything is determined by sexuality, biology, culture or else?”

Cool, then you don’t have to think. It is quite comfortable, right ? Sciences are not like this, great scientists are the ones that have been able to reflect on their axioms, and habits to provide then new abstractions. Not everyone is a genius and has the creativity to develop a new theory, reinterpreting the rules of gravity. But still, we can avoid being stupid by starting to reflect on what we rely on, and this is a good beginning.

I hope in the future, I will have the opportunity to spread this agenda. It could be interesting to have the sciences more open to the public, if  they are reflective sciences.

Do not hesitate to correct me if you find mistakes and to give me your insight 🙂

Here the thesis

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