Marine Litter Citizen Science Research Agenda - An Expert Perspective on Advancing the Citizen and the Science in Citizen Science

Lead Research Organisation: University of Surrey
Department Name: Psychology


Marine litter (manufactured solid waste) forms a serious threat to the marine environment and needs immediate action. Research shows us that marine litter is linked with huge financial costs, causes massive disruption to the environment, and harms wildlife. For example, over 690 species have been found to be impacted by marine litter. A recent review estimated that the collective social, environmental, and economic cost of one tonne of marine plastic alone can equate to $3,300-33,000.

One effective way to help tackle marine litter is engaging the public through citizen science. Citizen science projects involve members of the public to help the scientific process, typically by recording and removing marine litter items found in different marine environments. For example, the Marine Conservation Society runs year-round events where members of the public remove and record litter items found on beaches, whereby over 11,000 metric tonnes of waste have been removed from the UK coast in 25 years. To maximise the benefits of these projects for science, the volunteers as well as the marine environment it is important to gain a clear insight into the obstacles and benefits of using citizen science. Such insight will then help develop clear step-by-step processes to maximise their benefit.

Our research team has been involved in an ongoing UK-Brazilian project. Initial findings of this project identified the importance of placing equal importance to the science and the citizen scientists (the volunteers) to maximise outcomes of such projects. The quality and quantity of scientific data generated by citizen science is closely linked to volunteer experiences, motivations and continued engagement. We therefore need to better understand how to improve the quality of research conducted in this field and improve the experience of the volunteers involved in citizen science. To achieve these goals, we need to develop agreement amongst experts about how we can do this. To get the most meaningful outcomes we need to engage with a range of experts and active volunteers (the citizen scientists) involved in citizen science from around the world within different cultural, societal, political and environmental contexts. This will help maximise our understanding of successful citizen science projects for a broad context.

We will engage with users (researchers and practitioners) of citizen science in two ways, first, using the team's connections, around 160 people from around the world will be asked to complete an online questionnaire (including users that run these initiatives and active volunteers). This will tell us more about how and why they use citizen science, what are the main obstacles they have encountered when using citizen science, and what they feel is needed to improve citizen science related to marine litter. Second, around 35 of the experts will be asked to attend a 2-day workshop where we will discuss the results from the questionnaire and have in-depth discussions about the step-by-step processes needed to improve citizen science. By using international experts in citizen science, we will be able to extend the work that we have already done and look at whether people in different countries face different challenges to those we see in Brazil and the UK and identify appropriate solutions.

The areas that are identified through our international questionnaire and workshop will be developed into research priorities used to shape a research agenda for developing marine litter citizen science. This research agenda will be published alongside summary practical guidelines and used to support future activities into marine litter citizen science. This project will also allow us to link up the experts needed to take the research agenda forward. By conducting this project, we will be able to meet our overarching vision of understanding the practical ways in how citizen science related to marine litter can be advanced.

Technical Summary

Marine litter is a growing issue in need of action. Research in the area is growing at a considerable rate, and as a result, it is a prevalent topic within the media and political agendas. A growing trend is to use citizen science to help understand and tackle the issue, such as volunteers recording and removing marine litter items found in different environments. The key steps on how these initiatives can progress needs to be prioritised placing equal importance to the science and the citizen scientists (the volunteers). Specifically, there is scope to develop the quality of the data collected using this citizen science approach as well as fully evaluate and develop the volunteers' engagement. As the solutions will depend on the methods, volunteer profile, and the social, political and environmental context, it is therefore needed to draw on the experiences of a diverse international group of users of citizen science, to identify how best to advance the science and the benefits for the volunteers.

The main aim of this proposal is to publish a research agenda that is applicable to a wide international context that can be used to further develop citizen science projects with respect to marine litter (alongside simplified practical guidelines for non-academics). For this to materialise, a questionnaire and workshop on current users of citizen science across the world will identify the current application, opportunities, obstacles, and next steps on how citizen science can progress. Using the team's extensive networks, the questionnaire will reach a diverse sample of experts (n=80) and volunteers (n=80) from around the world. The initial findings from this questionnaire will then be discussed and prioritised during the workshop with a sub-sample of experts (n=35) in order to develop practical next steps for citizen science. A secondary aim will be to initiate a global network of researchers and practitioners and instigate future international research proposals.

Planned Impact

This proposal will have an impact on scientists, volunteers and society more generally.

Benefiting science: In addition to individual academic beneficiaries highlighted in the earlier section, there will be methodological advances. By identifying how to maximise the quality and quantity of the data collected using citizen science, the resulting findings will become more valid and reliable. This will strengthen the conclusions from this type of research. It will also be used to promote a greater use and uptake of citizen science by researchers and practitioners who have yet to adopt citizen science approaches. Thus, this proposal will increase the breadth (encouraging more people to use it) as well as depth (more reliable and valid conclusions) of the scientific enquiry into marine litter.

Benefiting the volunteers: The research agenda will equally consider the impacts these initiatives have on the volunteers themselves. This will focus on the engagement and retainment of volunteers (that in turn will help the sustainability of the overall citizen science projects) and also the direct benefits for the individuals. Previous studies have indicated that citizen science initiatives can be engaging, teach the volunteers something new about science and/or the socio-environmental issue and can encourage behaviour change (i.e. Mioni et al., 2015; Wyles et al., 2016). However, an ongoing review (Kawabe et al., in prep) has found that most citizen science initiatives engage rather superficially with the volunteers, who act as data collectors only (sometimes not even acknowledged for their contribution) and rarely evaluate the volunteer experiences and outcomes. By incorporating volunteers' perspectives from the questionnaire and drawing on the social sciences, this research agenda will help stress and acknowledge the importance of the citizen scientists themselves and identify methods on how to evaluate and maximise the benefits the volunteers get from the experience.

Benefiting society: By promoting citizen science that centres around engaging society in science, this proposal will further support citizen science's ability to engage and raise society's concern and literacy around marine litter. The proposal will target experts who have applied citizen science in a range of society groups, from school children, to local neighbourhood groups, and the general public. Thus, the concluding research agenda will be able to identify which groups to target and reflect on successful methods on doing so. It will also benefit society indirectly. Citizen science projects in the context of marine litter involve litter picking. Typically, the litter is recorded and/or examined in the laboratory then disposed of sustainably. Thus, by promoting citizen science, we will also see immediate local declines of marine litter, benefiting the environment and society. As well as such direct environmental benefits, these initiatives can also have broader impacts, by promoting behaviour change in the volunteers (such as changing their waste practices at home and purchasing behaviours; Wyles et al., 2016).

This impact will consequently support UKRI's public engagement vision (i.e. active participation in research, listening to concerns and aspirations) and the key strategic areas (e.g. improving the environment, tackling the plastics problem, encouraging multidisciplinary work, and advancing science). In sum, this proposal will help advance citizen science related to marine litter with respect to improving the scientific investigation on marine litter (demonstrated by the increased amount and quality of research outputs using our guidelines), the volunteers (greater acknowledgement and evaluation of the impacts on the volunteers in the outputs associated with these initiatives), and the environment and society more broadly (evidenced by declines in marine litter and greater engagement with volunteering and other pro-environmental behaviours).


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