citizen science for organization studies?

As a good navel-gazing academic, I often find myself thinking about the research process: how do we discover or produce new knowledge? Naturally, I’m especially interested in how we do this in the world of org theory: Where do our questions come from? How do we experience the organizational world? How do the people and interactions our data represent speak to us? Basically, what is good research? And, while we’re at it, how can we do more of it?

About 15 years ago, with the help of the Sloan Foundation, some colleagues and I launched a project called Science and Technology in the Making (STIM) that was intended to use this new technology called the World Wide Web as a tool for research. Remember that at the time (some would say, to this day), the web was used primarily as a means for sharing what we already knew, not generating new knowledge. We tried to engage various communities to contribute their experiences so that we scholars could have access to heretofore unavailable accounts of things like the computer mouse, the New York City blackouts of 1965 and 1977, Boston’s “Big Dig” and the electric vehicle (my contribution).

I’ll spare you the sausage making (more here), but I would like to think that we were anticipating one of the most interesting recent developments in the natural sciences, the growth of so-called citizen science. Though scientists have always been citizens, citizen science refers to distributed, large-scale research projects that encourage and rely upon participation by multiple individuals. You may have heard, for instance, of Zooniverse, eBird, etc. Most of these projects ask participants to contribute their observations of natural phenomenon to online databases that could, in principle, be intepreted by anyone, but, in practice, are interpreted by professional scholars. Some, like galaxyzoo and phylo, ask participants to interpret and code visual images that require human judgment. The algorithms aren’t yet good enough to do it for us.

The knowledge production process in these projects is pretty straightforward. People participate freely. It’s educational. It probably builds support for science more broadly. I can imagine some ethical issues arising around intellectual ownership, allocation of credit, and status reinforcement, and I do not know if anyone has looked at the quality of the data (in absolute or relative terms), but on the whole, citizen science seems like a pretty positive development. Besides, Clay Shirky says we waste a trillion hours each year anyway so with more citizen science, maybe we will waste a little less on TV.

If more is better, are there examples of citizen science in the community of scholars that study organizations? I hope so. If not, can we think of projects or ideas that would lend themselves to collective effort? The fine folks at the Sloan Foundation have even sponsored the Citizen Science Alliance to help us get started. Comment or email to get the conversation going.

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Written by dakirsch

September 18, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Posted in uncategorized

9 Responses

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  1. A very cool initiative. Trying to think about orgs-related applications (well, of course the effort itself, to harness work like this, is interesting to orgtheory) though nothing novel immediately comes to mind. Many of the projects listed have massive datasets where the information needs to somehow be processed, categorized etc – where citizen ‘slack’ might be harnessed toward efforts like this. Don’t know what types of orgs datasets there are like that – surely some. Though, obviously, one might also use technologies like this to somehow generate data as well (beyond simply coding it).

    As a side note, the gamification craze/trend also tries to capitalize on citizen time (e.g., the Finnish national archive is being digitized via a game that kids can play – the project is called ‘digitalkoot’).


    September 19, 2011 at 5:57 am

  2. Yes, gamification could also play a part. I hadn’t heard about the Finnish archives, but the phylo project noted in the post is “gamy.” Also, another interesting archival application is the fascinating and oddly compelling “What’s on the Menu?” project at the New York Public Library. Well worth a peek:


    September 19, 2011 at 1:50 pm

  3. I like the idea of citizen science in principle. But in practice I don’t quite get how it works. We teach our students that data collection, analysis, and all that they involve should be driven by theory, but what role does theory have in massive projects like this? Can coding decisions that might have significant theoretical import be outsourced to a crowd? Can categorizing schemas be applied consistently? How much internal consistency can measures have when they’re created by thousands? All of these problems would trouble me as a project like this moved toward the publication phase.

    brayden king

    September 19, 2011 at 3:18 pm

  4. Very valid concerns Brayden… if we think only about doing normal org science of the type we’ve been doing. Part of what appeals to me about the new citizen science is the possibility of expanding into new modes of knowledge production that might engage broader slices of society. It strikes me that not many non-org theorists care about the latest advances in org theory. That may not be a problem yet, for org science or the profession, but I worry that down the road, it might be. Are there problems and issues like the “What’s on the Menu?” project that would get tens of thousands of people thinking about org theory? And wouldn’t that be a good thing?


    September 20, 2011 at 3:03 am

  5. I work a bit in this area, and this post makes me think that the problem is pitched wrong in a couple of ways. First, while I commend the effort of org studies folks to get in on the citizen science game and start thinking about how to leverage the wisdom of crowds and all that… I rather think that the whole idea of the wisdom of crowds, citizen participation, peer to peer production etc. is in fact an object for organizational research. I say this as someone more or less totally outside the field, probably trying to reinvent the wheel (eg. see this paper also here). I think there is a real need for a smart organizational perspective on not just citizen science, but all the contemporary claims for new forms of participation, citizen involvement etc. If it can be done with the help of citizens and amateurs… all the better.

    But also, citizen science projects tend to take the citizen part for granted while posing the knowledge production part as the goal, or the problem. I.e. how can we leverage citizens to produce more knowledge (in this case about org studies itself?). I rather think that the problem is the obverse: what kind of participation is this? who are these citizens, how do they participate, why and with what effects on their understanding of citizenship or participation? This is the poorly understood part. The meaning of participation has changed pretty dramatically from the optimistic dreams of the 1960s… so it’s not the science but the citizen part that needs explaining I think.

    And generally speaking the most successful citizen science projects build directly on long-standing, semi-organized amateur endeavors–bird-watching, amateur astronomy, history. They are new primarily in terms of scope and scale. Authentic citizen science projects (e.g. Louisiana Bucket Brigades or this project) are rare.

    Christopher Kelty

    September 22, 2011 at 8:08 pm

  6. [...] citizen science for organization studies? ( [...]

  7. Cornell’s doing some work in this area, I believe. Might be worth reaching out them (Ric Bonney, Jennifer Shirk).

    If anyone would like to view the landscape of current citizen science projects, we’ve created a searchable database of projects (400+ with more added each week by researchers and project organizers) at


    October 31, 2011 at 1:55 pm

  8. [...] David Kirsch’s previous post on a citizen science for organization studies and other orgtheory crowdsourcing posts. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); [...]

  9. [...] of “citizen science” (David Kirsch posted about citizen science on, see here).  I think there are lots of interesting possibilities: funding, tapping into cognitive [...]

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