Allgemein vDHd2021 Blogreihe

The Challenge of Motivation – How Participants Stay on the Ball (or Not)

Citizen Science – or in our case Citizen Humanities – lives from the Citizens, who participate in projects. However, motivating them to participate in the same is not that easy. Therefore, this blogpost gives a small insight into previous studies on the motivation of Citizen Scientists on the one hand, but also reports on personal experiences in linguistic Citizen Science projects.

Note: This is the English translation (automatically with DeepL). The original article in German by Melanie Seltmann (TU Darmstadt) can be found here.

Citizen Science – or in our case Citizen Humanities – lives from the Citizens((The term Citizen in Citizen Science is by no means unproblematic, as is the frequently used German version Bürger*innenwissenschaft. This could imply that only people with certain civil rights are allowed to participate. This problem will be left aside for this contribution and Citizen will be understood as a world citizen.)), who participate in projects. However, motivating them to participate in the same is not that easy. Therefore, this blogpost gives a small insight into previous studies on the motivation of Citizen Scientists on the one hand, but also reports on personal experiences in linguistic Citizen Science projects.

Are these personal experiences at all meaningful, one or the other may ask. Well, clearly not as meaningful as a study. But since I have been involved in various Citizen Science projects for six years and have cooperated with others, this may be enough for an insight, which is not dubbed personal experience for nothing.

Excursus: What is Citizen Science and if so, how many

But before we look at the motivation to participate in Citizen Science projects, let’s first make a short excursion into what Citizen Science and Citizen Humanities actually are. But right at the beginning there has to be a disappointment: There is not THE one definition of Citizen Science. This would also be the problem that certain Citizen Science projects and activities would be excluded – and thus would not receive funding (cf. Haklay et al., 2021: 19).

Haklay et al. (2021) have recently provided a rather detailed overview of different definitions. They compare the different definitions and relate them to each other. In doing so, they refer to different factors. Among other things, they create a matrix of different functions of the definitions of Citizen Science.

A definition is not trivial. For this article, we nevertheless want to break it down to a definition and adopt the definition from the Green Paper Citizen Science Strategy 2020 for Germany (Bonn et al., 2016: 14):

Citizen Science beschreibt die Beteiligung von Personen an wissenschaftlichen Prozessen, die nicht in diesem Wissenschaftsbereich institutionell gebunden sind. Dabei kann die Beteiligung in der kurzzeitigen Erhebung von Daten bis hin zu einem intensiven Einsatz von Freizeit bestehen, um sich gemeinsam mit Wissenschaftlerinnen bzw. Wissenschaftlern und/oder anderen Ehrenamtlichen in ein Forschungsthema zu vertiefen. Obwohl viele ehrenamtliche Forscherinnen und Forscher eine akademische Ausbildung aufweisen, ist dies keine Voraussetzung für die Teilnahme an Forschungsprojekten. Wichtig ist allerdings die Einhaltung wissenschaftlicher Standards, wozu vor allem Transparenz im Hinblick auf die Methodik der Datenerhebung und die öffentliche Diskussion der Ergebnisse gehören.

The four stages of Citizen Science projects

According to Haklay (2013), the involvement of citizens in projects can be divided into four levels. At the first, lowest level, citizens only participate with little cognitive effort by providing resources. This level is referred to as crowdsourcing. At a second level, the citizen’s participation consists of their cognitive abilities. Here, participants collect data or perform simple interpretive tasks after receiving basic training. This level is called distributed intelligence. The next level up is community science (participatory science). Citizens are already involved in finding a research method and carry out the data collection independently. Scientists support them in the interpretation of the data. Finally, in the last stage, participants can independently determine the degree of their involvement and potentially participate in the analysis and publication of the research results. This is called Extreme Citizen Science. Here, scientists act not only as experts, but also as mediators and moderators (cf. Haklay, 2013: 116f.).

Now, however, we are looking here at the field of humanities and not all scientific fields. Since the humanities are always a bit different from the natural sciences, there is also the subfield of Citizen Humanities in the field of Citizen Science. The term itself is not that old, but has a long history of research practice (cf. Heinisch et al., 2021: 98). In linguistics, for example, already in the 19th century Georg Wenker invited Citizens to survey the local population. Based on these surveys, he created his Sprachatlas des Deutschen Reichs (or Wenker Atlas). The development of digital humanities, however, has added many more possibilities for involving citizens (cf. Heinisch et al., 2021: 97).

Motivation phases

Now that we know what Citizen Humanities is all about, let us finally turn our attention to the motivation of citizens to participate in such projects. In the previous scientific studies on motivation, mainly natural science Citizen Science projects are considered. This correlates with the fact that Citizen Science projects in the humanities and social sciences are generally rather less known.

In the literature, different phases of motivation are assumed. Rotman et al. (2014) describe a phase of initial participation and a phase of long-term participation (cf. Rotman et al., 2014: 231). The UK Environmental Observation Framework (UKEOF 2016) guide describes a change in motivation over the participation period (cf. UKEOF, 2016: 3). Land-Zandstra et al. (2021) distinguish three phases at once in which something can be done to motivate Citizens: Recruitment, retention (to the project), and the evaluation and closing phases (cf. Land-Zandstra et al., 2021: 253). West/Pateman (2016) even see four phases: the decision to participate in the project, initial participation, sustained participation, and the final phase (West/Pateman, 2016: 2).

For the initial phase, Rotman et al. (2014) describe personal interest in particular as motivation. Furthermore, they find self-expression, self-efficacy (in the sense of influence on scientific work and awareness in the scientific community), and social responsibility as additional factors (cf. Rotman et al., 2014: 230). UKEOF (2016) also note the desire to contribute to science as the main motivation, alongside „dispositional reasons such as enthusiasm, enjoyment and skills development“ (UKEOF, 2016: 2). Land-Zandstra et al. (2021) list a whole range of categories for motivation based on Levontin et al. (2018). These include, for example, the will to learn, to challenge oneself, to have fun, to succeed, to make a name for oneself, to improve one’s reputation, safety (as an output for specific projects), participation because acquaintances also participate, altruism, to improve society and the environment because they would perform the task anyway, because they seek community, to participate in science, or simply to share their knowledge and experience (cf. Land-Zandstra et al., 2021: 249). West/Pateman (2016) summarize that in order to participate in Citizen Science projects, participants must feel capable of contributing to the relevant research in the first place (cf. West/Pateman, 2016: 2).

The challenge of staying on the ball

Most projects succeed quite well with initial participation. It is more difficult for participants to stay on the ball, and in the best case motivation even remains constantly high (cf. e.g. Kunzmann/Mutter, 2020: 36). The motivations for this phase are more complex and strongly influenced by interpersonal, formal as well as informal relationships (cf. Rotman et al., 2014: 232). Rotman et al. (2014) cite an equal number of conditions that encourage persistent participation: Trust in data quality, collection methods, as well as in the practices used by participants themselves are indispensable and increasingly important. In addition, clear communication of the common goals of scientists and Citizen Scientists is valued. Recognition of the contributions of Citizens also fosters sustained motivation. Finally, additional motivation can come from mentoring programs (cf. Rotman et al., 2014: 231). UKEOF (2016) also cite „organizational factors such as feedback and good project management“ (UKEOF, 2016: 2) as sustaining or even promoting motivation. In addition, „key motivations of participants and stakeholders should be aligned“ (UKEOF, 2016: 2).

And what about in linguistics?

Let us now move away from studies to more personal experiences in linguistic citizen science projects. First, let us look at the crowdsourcing project VerbaAlpina (Krefeld/Lücke, 2014), based at LMU Munich. The goal of the project is to „investigate the numerous languages and dialects spoken in the Alpine region“ (Kunzmann/Mutter, 2020: 32). Citizens can contribute dialect terms from their respective community via an Internet portal and thus supplement or update terms from traditional language atlases and dictionaries (cf. Kunzmann/Mutter, 2020: 35f.). It goes without saying that the continued participation of citizens is crucial for the success of this approach. Targeted publicity campaigns“ have proved particularly suitable for this purpose (Kunzmann/Mutter, 2020: 36). Particularly effective in this regard were „a contribution on the website of the Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) as part of the BR’s dialect theme week from 27.4.2018 to 4.5.2018. […] Radio interviews and popular science lectures, on the other hand, had the least success“ (Kunzmann/Mutter, 2020: 36). It is also particularly difficult here to maintain motivation. For this, VerbaAlpina uses a gamification approach, in that they „keep a ranking of the most active communities, among other things“ (Kunzmann/Mutter, 2020: 37).

The second project we will look at is Lingscape (Purschke/Gilles, 2016ff.) at the University of Luxembourg. This is a Linguistic Landscaping project that provides participants with an app to collect and annotate writing in public spaces. For Lingscape itself, the annotation of languages seen in the images is of particular interest. Uploading can be done either in a general area or in a specially created project. If participants create their own projects, they can evaluate the uploaded data via a web page. Lingscape is a co-creation project that combines aspects of crowdsourcing, outreach activities and joint project work. For example, wishes of the participants are also included in the further development of the framework (cf. Purschke, 2021: 8). Gamification aspects such as rankings or high scores are explicitly avoided in Lingscape, because the motivation should not come from these rewards, but in creating awareness of the semiotic complexity and social richness of public signage. Adding such elements would change the motivation from intrinsic and task-oriented to extrinsic and reward-oriented. Furthermore, privacy reasons play a role here (cf. Purschke, 2021: 9f.). In Lingscape, citizens can participate without registering and largely anonymously. Only a device-specific ID is stored. This allows users to see for themselves how many photos they upload. In the meantime, there is a whole series of projects in Lingscape, especially from various universities and schools.

Linguistic Landscaping in Salzburg

Finally, the third project we would like to look at is IamDiÖ – Erforsche Deutsch in Österreich (Seltmann/Heinisch, 2018). It is based at the University of Vienna. It deals with the diversity and change of the German language in Austria via the three aspects of variation, contact, and perception, investigating the ways in which the German language is used and perceived in Austria. It also shows the influence of other languages on the German language in Austria (cf. Heinisch, 2020: 166). IamDiÖ follows an extreme citizen science approach. For this, different participation options are offered in the project. On the one hand, there is the Research Question of the Month (FM). Here, citizens can ask questions about German in Austria via an online tool. In addition, a number of questions were collected in personal dialog at on-site events such as the Long Night of Research 2018 or the FWF Science Festival „Be Open“ 2018. Two questions are put to a vote on Facebook, of which the one with the highest score is the next to be answered in the project. The goal is for Citizens themselves to answer the questions posed. However, this has only happened once so far (cf. Heinisch et al., 2021: 101).

A second activity of IamDiÖ is a linguistic scavenger hunt for writing in public space. Here, with the help of a project in the Lingscape app, a corpus is created that can be analyzed by citizens and researchers: according to the number of languages depending on their location on the one hand, and according to the use of annotations as well as the selection of motifs and content on the other (cf. Seltmann/Heinisch, 2018). Here, Citizens could both set off on their own search, but several organized scavenger hunts were also offered – both for students and for the general public. This activity was also part of the participatory day at the Austrian Citizen Science Conference 2018 in Salzburg as well as the Austrian Citizen Science Awards 2019.

Linguistic Landscaping in Wien mit IamDiÖ

A third activity of IamDiÖ is the meme generator including meme competition. In the generator, pictures are made available that participants can add text to. Various meme competitions have been called for motivation. The latest project activity is the creation of a dictionary. Here, citizens file, for example, dialect words and their standard German equivalents in the „Wortgut“ tool. This activity is especially organized in the context of this year’s Austrian Citizen Science Awards.

As an additional activity of IamDiÖ, comics were created at various on-site events (ready-made comic strips were filled with text) and afterwards placed together with guidance on a coordinate system of standard or nonstandard speech on the x-axis and proximity-distance on the y-axis. This can be used to examine not only how different forms of nonstandard are written, but also the perception of standard proximity as well as the use of the different forms of speech.

Although the team is very active, especially on Facebook, has been able to build up a good reach, and also maintains a detailed website with instructions and blogposts about the project, the activities worked much better with personal interaction (see also Heinisch et al., 2021: 101). Only through personal interaction with the Citizens could real motivation be achieved. Besides personal interaction, competitions or other rewards (such as recognition as an achievement in a course) helped Citizens to participate in the activities. However, this participation usually did not extend beyond the time of the reward.

And the moral of the story

So what do we learn from the results of the studies and from personal experience? It is difficult to keep the motivation of citizens at a constant level. The fundamental prerequisite is that they have their own intrinsic interest in the task or research question, that they feel capable of answering it, and that they interact with the researchers. Citizen Science thrives on exchange – between citizens and researchers (in both directions) and among citizens themselves. One should not underestimate the capabilities of citizens and should involve citizens in the activities and questions that arise in the course of a (Citizen Science) project. Then Citizen Science can be a promising endeavor for both sides, making citizens more empowered and giving researchers support and legitimacy for their research.

This article is licensed under: CC-BY 4.0. When reusing, please include the rel=“canonical“ attribute in the link to the original post!

How to cite: Seltmann, Melanie (2021): „The Challenge of Motivation – How Participants Stay on the Ball (or Not)“. In: Kolodzie, Lisa, Schumacher, Mareike, Seltmann, Melanie und Brenn, Daniel (eds.): Public Humanitieshttps://publicdh.hypotheses.org/79.


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