Using Storytelling in Citizen Science

Citizen science – the active involvement of the public in scientific research – continues to propagate around the world as a viable method of discovery, and as a process to boost scientific literacy and public engagement.

With a wildly flourishing assortment of citizen science projects underway across the science disciplines, researchers are making good use of the data coming from the practice of citizen science itself. New studies are helping to mature and professionalize citizen science as a field, offering up helpful approaches, rooted in evidence, to its practitioners.

This includes a growing body of work on using stories in citizen science.

Storytelling approaches work particular well with citizen partners. When done well, stories can transfer complex knowledge to more audiences, build relationships with communities and also inspire people to participate in future projects.

And when a scientist gathers stories, they get information that may not have been accessible to them before. This can also lead to novel research ideas and better science outcomes.

In a recent study* researchers in Germany and Austria teamed up to investigate the benefits of storytelling in citizen science and the many ways it’s being done. Their aim is to help categorize the ways storytelling is being applied and build a model to conceptualize the role of storytelling in citizen science.

Their work helps to fill gaps in the current understanding of storytelling and gives the science community more tools to use storytelling to help them reach their science objectives.

They propose three major categories for the use of stories in citizen science: as a research objective itself, as a tool used in a research project, and finally as an agent to help convey messages and findings to attract a broad audience.

Stories as an objective is when they’re collected for scientific analysis. Scientists can gather them from past or present sources, diaries, books, verbal exchanges, etc. For example, a citizen science project in rural Austria looked at the transmission of traditional knowledge about bread between the generations. Stories were used to gather unscripted local and historical knowledge. Through storytelling, they studied processes of social change to gain insights into the values and attitudes of several generations.

As a tool, stories can help generate knowledge. Storytelling is often used in health research, oral history and biodiversity monitoring. As an example, one project in Germany used stories to motivate children to playfully acquire knowledge of scientific principles as they participate in the investigation of seed predation in their community. Stories were used to explain abstract terms and concepts to the 300 children engaged in the project throughout its phases, including generating hypotheses, recording and testing data and communicating the results.

The third category is that of storytelling as an agent. Stories can be used to communicate science and related messages to a broad audience, including at science slams, science cafés and programs at universities targeting children, triggering their attention and attracting volunteers.

Learning from research on storytelling helps ground citizen science in evidence-based methodologies. This can lead to more reliable research outcomes and encourage more people to use storytelling in citizen science, allowing scientists to cover new ground in their field of research and to generate beneficial outcomes for society.

Robert Simpson is the President and CEO of PR Associates.

* Richter, A., Sieber, A., Siebert, J., Miczajka-Rußmann, V. L., Zabel, J., Ziegler, D., Hecker, S. and Frigerio, D. (2019). ‘Storytelling for narrative approaches in citizen science: towards a generalized model’. JCOM 18 (06), A02.

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