The way you describe your citizen science project can have a big impact on whether people decide to join in or not. Think of a project description like an elevator pitch: it should be brief, to the point, and clearly lay out the what, why and how for anyone browsing through SciStarter (or any other citizen science platform).
In a recent open-access paper published in Frontiers in Environmental Science, researchers Yaela Golumbic and Marius Oesterheld lay out some basic principles for writing citizen science project descriptions, drawing from an analysis of 120 real-world projects (including many taken from SciStarter!). They include starting off with a clear and concise one-sentence summary of what a project is, avoiding the passive voice, telling readers exactly what they’ll be doing in the project, and why their participation matters.
One big thing missing from most of the project descriptions they analyzed was what they call “volunteer and community management.” This includes, for example, explaining how project participants will benefit from taking part, how their contributions will be recognized and whether they’ll have access to the data or research that emerges from the project. Connecting that payoff to what a volunteer is doing can make a big difference in motivating people and sustaining interest.
Further, they found that too much of the writing in project descriptions sounded academic, like you might find in a research paper abstract. Academic writing often uses the passive voice, doesn’t always lead with a clear description of what a study or project is, and can sound dry, which can cause readers to lose interest.
Telling readers exactly what they’ll be doing is also important. You might have clearly laid out what a project is and why someone should take part, but if they don’t know how to get started, they’re not very likely to participate.
Three main takeaways from the paper
The researchers include three takeaways, which are excerpted here.
“Rather than writing: ‘In order to be able to make better predictions about future climate change, scientists need to know more about how decomposition occurs,’ make the project and its activities more visible by stating: ‘By collecting data about decomposition, this project will help scientists make better predictions about future climate change.’”
“Instead of writing ‘Through this project, ten thousands of documents will be annotated and made available to interested researchers and members of the public’ you could inform the reader that ‘Together with the project team, you — our volunteers — will annotate ten thousands of documents, making them available to interested researchers and members of the public’”
“For example ‘This project looks at the seasonal migration patterns of two bird species—black storks and common cranes’ is much easier to understand than the much more detailed version: ‘This project looks at the seasonal migration patterns of the black stork (Ciconia nigra, native to Portugal, Spain, and certain parts of Central and Eastern Europe, migrates to sub-Saharan Africa) and the common crane (Grus grus or Eurasian crane, mainly found in Eastern Europe and Siberia, migrates to the Iberian Peninsula and northern Africa).’”
How to write a great citizen science project description
Start off with a one-sentence summary of what your project is. Next, you can add some brief historic or scientific context, but keep it brief — no more than one or two sentences. Then, state what participants will be doing, how to join the project and why their participation matters. If participants will get access to the data, or some form of recognition later on, let them know. The researchers recommend keeping project descriptions to under 500 words.
The researchers full list of ten recommendations for writing a great project description can be found in Table 1 of the paper.
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