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Design Principles for Engaging and Retaining Virtual Citizen Scientists

December 06, 2016 by Dara M. Wald, Justin Longo, A. R. Dobell

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Citizen science initiatives encourage volunteer participants to collect and interpret data and contribute to formal scientific projects. The growth of virtual citizen science (VCS), facilitated through websites and mobile applications since the mid-2000s, has been driven by a combination of software innovations and mobile technologies, growing scientific data flows without commensurate increases in resources to handle them, and the desire of internet-connected participants to contribute to collective outputs. However, the increasing availability of internet-based activities requires individual VCS projects to compete for the attention of volunteers and promote their long-term retention. We examined program and platform design principles that might allow VCS initiatives to compete more effectively for volunteers, increase productivity of project participants, and retain contributors over time. We surveyed key personnel engaged in managing a sample of VCS projects to identify the principles and practices they pursued for these purposes and led a team in a heuristic evaluation of volunteer engagement, website or application usability, and participant retention. We received 40 completed survey responses (33% response rate) and completed a heuristic evaluation of 20 VCS program sites. The majority of the VCS programs focused on scientific outcomes, whereas the educational and social benefits of program participation, variables that are consistently ranked as important for volunteer engagement and retention, were incidental. Evaluators indicated usability, across most of the VCS program sites, was higher and less variable than the ratings for participant engagement and retention. In the context of growing competition for the attention of internet volunteers, increased attention to the motivations of virtual citizen scientists may help VCS programs sustain the necessary engagement and retention of their volunteers.