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RL #038: Think like a Think Tank – Communicating with Political Impact

In this reading list, we want to look at the communication methods think tanks use to bring science into politics.

Professional providers of science communication–whether embedded in research institutions, as companies such as Oikoplus, or think tanks–aim to communicate research results clearly and transparently and make knowledge available for public debate. The target audience for this is diverse. One relevant target group that is usually among the declared addressees of science communication is political decision-makers. In this Reading List, we therefore want to focus on communication methods aimed at policymakers and take a look at think tanks.

According to Sarah Lewis from TechTarget, think tanks create a space for debate, the generation of ideas and ways to disseminate knowledge. For a target group of lawmakers and political strategists, it is not just about providing information, but to provide the basis for decisions. As Clair Grant-Salmon points out, ‘gone are the days of producing standard sets of marketing activities that we can apply to all [target audiences]’. Nowadays, think tanks need to know who they are targeting and what they want to achieve.

Policy oriented think tank work, as stated by Annapoorna Ravichander results in ‘sets of guidelines to help achieve outcomes in a reasonable manner’. They are different from processes and actions. Policies are broad and set a certain direction. While science communication may not have a direct policymaking ambition, it can play a significant role in shaping policy debates, informing decision makers and influencing the development of ideas. And there are methods which can be applied in order to achieve policy influence. 

The most central way for science communicators to achieve policy impact, is providing policymakers with expertise and consultation. Science communicators can place researchers as consultants to government agencies, providing input in the policy-making process. There is, however, a challenge in this method. According to Andrea Baertl Helguero, in order to have influence on policy through consulting, think tanks should maintain a strong intellectual transparency and ensure their research is diligent and reliable. 

Another crucial method to achieve policy influence is networking. It’s a classic method used by think tanks. As Alejandro Chaufen explains in an article for Forbes, networking allows think tanks to create platforms where ideas can be exchanged and a consensus can be build around policy agendas

A question of format

An established format for presenting research findings to policymakers are policy briefing papers. A policy brief is a concise, well-researched and informed summary of a particular issue, the policy options for addressing that issue and some recommendations. These briefs are an important tool for presenting research findings and recommendations based on them to a non-scientific audience to support decision-making. Policy briefs allow science communicators to communicate their research and findings in a way that conveys the urgency of the issue and is accessible to people with different levels of knowledge. However, here too, research institutions should ensure transparency and remain independent and transparent when presenting problems, options or proposed solutions.  

When policy impact is the declared goal of science communication, this generates  a need for anticipatory methods such as foresight and forecasting, which can help inform policy action and increase societal resilience in a sustainable way. Science communicators should take a long-term view of policy change, work over-time and build momentum for the topics and ideas they work with. Mark Halle, for International Institute for Sustainable Development, states that ‘think tanks cannot afford vagueness […]’. They must create outputs, which are clear, targeted, and incorporate a vision of long-term, positive effects.  

This text hopefully serves as a good introduction to the question of what can be learned from think tanks when it comes to achieving political impact through science communication. And this leads almost inevitably to the question of how to measure the impact of research in the first place. Fortunately, we have already dealt with this in other Readings Lists, e.g here

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      RL #037: 10 Learnings from Science Communication

      What can we learn from science communication? A reading list based on the experiences of the first five years of Oikoplus.

      1. Relevant target groups may be small.

      The success of communication is often measured in reach. Reach is also a hard currency in communication for research and innovation projects. However, science dissemination is often very specific, and it’s small target groups that are particularly relevant for successful project communication. In our Domino-E project, for example, one of the most relevant target groups is the small group of people involved in programming satellite missions for earth observation purposes. This target group is not only small, but it is also not easy to identify the communication channels through which it can be reached. However, the content for this target group is specific enough to be able to assume that the target group will find the relevant content as long as it is easy to find. So we decided to use YouTube as a channel.

      1. Simplifying does not have to mean trivializing.

      The closer you zoom in on a topic, the bigger it becomes. Many topics and issues appear straightforward at first glance, and only on closer inspection do their complexity, depth and multi-layered nature become apparent. Nevertheless, it is not wrong to take a superficial look at a topic first and only delve deeper in the second step. For experts who are extremely well-versed in a particular subject area, it is often difficult to allow this superficial view. They are too aware of the aspects that only become apparent on closer inspection. And that’s why the superficial view feels like a simplification to them, and often like a trivialization. It is important to allow simplification. But it should be correct. Our REACT project, which deals with the control of pest insect species, can be summarized easily: Insects are sterilized so that they can mate with wild-type insects in the wild without producing offspring. The insect population shrinks in the medium term due to the lack of offspring. In this way, agriculture is protected from the pest. Technically, this method involves a great deal of effort. Nevertheless, we have tried to explain the project in as simple and understandable terms as possible.

      Photo by Melanie Deziel on Unsplash
      1. The “general public” does hardly exist.

      Science communication aims to make research accessible to the general public. This broad public can therefore be found as a target group in the applications and descriptions of many research and innovation projects. However, from a communication perspective, the general public hardly exists. Addressing the public as a whole is damn difficult, or rather: it is impossible. Developing key messages and storytelling approaches automatically involves a selection of target groups. Not everyone finds everything interesting. And if you manage to meet the interests of as many different target groups as possible, that’s already a great communication success. To gain an understanding of how diverse the target groups of our communication in research and innovation projects can be, we have our project partners develop personas in interactive workshops at the start of a project. These are fictitious people who we then use to jointly consider what needs to be done to reach them through our project communication: with which messages, on which channels, when, why, and with what goal in mind? It usually becomes clear quite quickly that the general public is only an auxiliary term that indicates that each project can address many different target groups.

      1. Never underestimate how exciting any topic can be.

      How interesting a topic is sometimes isn’t obvious at first glance. No wonder: not every topic can be perceived as equally exciting, and it always depends on how a topic is presented. You could say that it is the job of science communicators like Oikoplus to ensure that a topic arouses the interest of as many people as possible. That is true. But even those who do science communication, first have to find their very own interest in a topic. This does not always happen straight away, which is why it is part of our work to actively seek out approaches to any given topic in which we recognize the potential to tell a story to a specific target group. We therefore force ourselves to be curious and to think empathetically about what the thematic appeal could be for other target groups. Sooner or later, the penny will drop – and then communication will be much easier.

      5. Even those who conduct the most exciting research don’t always like to talk about it.

      As a journalist, you sometimes have to worm the information you want to convey out of the interviewees. You have to keep asking questions because the interest in conveying information tends to be one-sided. If you’re not doing journalism, but science communication on behalf of science, then this can also happen. This can be surprising, as one would think that the dissemination of information is in the interest of both the scientists and the public and that in the role of the communicator, one only has to do the mediation work. In practice, however, we have often found that researchers sometimes do not always like to talk about their work and that even basic explanations have to be laboriously elicited from them. There is no simple solution to this problem. It is important to build trust, present your communication work as transparently as possible, and create environments in which insights into scientific work are possible. In some cases, this can be a large video shoot in a laboratory with artificial lighting and large camera equipment, and in other cases, it can be a personal one-on-one conversation. In any case, science communication does not happen by itself, even when the most exciting research is communicated.

      Photo by Gabriel Valdez on Unsplash

      6. Quality and quantity.

      In science, quality is more important than quantity. In communication, this is sometimes not so clear. When the objectives for project communication are laid down in the applications for research projects, the corresponding KPIs are often set high. After all, a proposal submission should express high ambitions. If it is approved, you then realize that the goals may have been set too high and that publications, press releases, website articles, social media postings, photos, videos, and other project dissemination content can be produced, but that it is not easy to maintain your high-quality standards. High-quality content takes time. In our video series for the REACT project, for example, we try to explain the research project as comprehensively as possible and at the same time as clearly as possible. The first of the explanatory videos can be found here. Producing such videos requires a long and detailed exchange with the researchers involved. This is why dozens of such videos cannot be produced in a project like REACT. This should also be expressed in the objectives at the start of the project.

      7. Speed is not everything in communication.

      Rome wasn’t built in a day. And also, you have to take time in science communication. In other areas of communication, in journalism, PR, and advertising, speed is often a key quality feature. And there are also moments in science communication when it is important to react quickly. But in general, science communication follows the pace of science. For press relations, for example, this means that you can free yourself a little from the temporal logic of media operations. A research topic does not lose its relevance simply because it is no longer news. If, for example, a research paper was published several weeks ago, it is not pointless from the outset to draw journalists’ attention to the paper. This is a major difference between science communication and some other fields of professional communication work.

      Photo by Bradley Pisney on Unsplash
      1. You don’t have to fully understand what you are communicating.

      At Oikoplus, we often benefit from the fact that we approach the research projects that we support in terms of communication as laypeople. The fact that we are not experts in urban development, archaeology, crop protection, satellite technology, or the energy transition has helped us to ask the right questions in the projects that we implement in these areas. After all, the fact that we don’t immediately understand the methods and innovations of our projects is something we have in common with our target groups. This is not to be understood as a hymn to trivialization. Of course, it helps to familiarize yourself with the topics that are being communicated. But you also don’t have to be afraid to bring your expertise, namely communications expertise, to projects that you initially have no idea about. Don’t be afraid of rocket science. Even rocket scientists are sometimes dependent on communication experts.

      1. Think globally, act globally.

      To make an abstract topic accessible, it is often linked to a manageable aspect of people’s everyday lives. This is a common method in journalism. To draw attention to the consequences of global climate change, for example, changes to the ecosystem are described at a local level. This creates relatability. We wrote about this in Reading List #010. So far, so useful. In our communication for European and global research projects, we sometimes lack this local or everyday level. We design communication for international target groups – after all, research is international too. The slogan “think globally, act locally” therefore often becomes “think globally, act globally” for us. In concrete terms, this means that science communication cannot always respond to the needs of different local target groups. This is where translations into dozens of different languages and a lack of mobility alone can lead to failure. Science communication takes place on an international level. As a science communicator, you often have to trust that the topics you are communicating about will find their target groups – not the other way around.

      10. Curiosity is the best driver of communication.

      If you ask us at Oikoplus what drives us, the answer is easy. It is curiosity. In German, the word for it (Neugier) is derived from the greed (Gier) for something new (Neu). We took a critical look at this in one of our last reading lists. We understand curiosity as the constant interest in new experiences, insights, and perspectives. We see it as a great privilege of science communication that we can constantly learn something new in our work, and it even largely consists of this. We enjoy doing it.

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      RL #024: Hands-on: Gamification in Archeo-Tourism

      This Oikoplus Reading List is not about a specific issue in the field of Science Communication and Research Dissemination, for once. This Oikoplus Reading List is about one of our own projects.

      In the past two years we have learned a lot about archaeology through the participation of our association Sustainication e.V. (a quasi subsidary of Oikoplus) in the Interreg project ArcheoDanube. And about the exciting challenge of using archaeology to develop sustainable tourism concepts. 

      After two and a half intensive project years, ArcheoDanube will come to an end in 2022. In mid-November, the Closing Conference took place in the Slovenian city of Ptuj. The different institutions involved in the project from 11 countries of the Danube Region presented the results of the project. These include not only Guidelines for Local Archeo Plans as a vehicle for sustainable archeotourism, but also concrete local pilot actions in which the concept of Archaeological Parks was and will be tested.

      But what does ArcheoDanube have to do with science communication and Oikoplus? Well … plenty. Because embedding archaeology in tourism concepts requires the commmunication of research results – adapted to a specific place and specific target groups. The Sustainication/Oikoplus team was able to contribute to the project not only by writing an e-handbook on archaeological site management, but also by participating in three think tank workshops evaluating Local Action Plans in Szombathely (HU), Pilsen (CZ) and X (HR). 

      Digital Tools for ArcheoTourism Gamification

      And: We have developed a mobile app. The app ArcheoTales for Android and iOS, which was developed together with the Graz-based company Softwaregärtner, allows visitors to archaeological sites and museums to be sent on digital scavenger hunts. This allows cultural tourism providers and operators of heritage sites to offer didactically and playfully prepared content to different target groups. And visitors can experience the exhibition in the form of a puzzle game at their own, individual pace. Here, visitors communicate via mobile app with fictional characters in a mass-ger interface. 

      Another digital tool developed in the ArcheoDanube project is Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow. It is specifically aimed at cities and municipalities that have cultural heritage and archaeological sites and are looking for assistance in creating a tourism concept in the form of an archeopark. 

      In the ArcheoTales project, we have been able to learn an immense amount about archaeology and the cultural history of the Danube region, visit wonderful places with cultural tourism treasures, and meet fantastic colleagues from 11 countries. In the process, we made new friends and learned what good science communication can do in a field that was completely new to us – and how much fun it is to do it.

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      RL #020: Science Communication and Democracy

      Always in a constant state of fluctuation, global democracy has recently seen a strong decline. According to a 2021 press release from Freedom House, various factors, one of which was the Covid-19 pandemic, have recently contributed to a retreat of the individual from the public space. Shielding oneself from un-understandable developments in not only world health, natural science, and economy, but also social relationships has turned out to damage the growth of freedom, inclusiveness, and consent, which are extremely important cornerstones of democracy. Science communication can clarify difficult-to-comprehend concepts. It can bridge the gap between ongoing research and the general public. It can ease the discomfort of contributing to the public space. Following our Reading List tackling the inclusivity of science communication, this time we share some good reads that point to the relationship between science communication and democracy.

      Democracy and an Informed but Helpless Public

      Democracy is a process that requires a continuously informed public. It is the only way to allow for an equal public discourse. But things appear to be much more complex. In „The Fall of the Public Man”, sociologist Richard Sennett points out that the omission to explain science to civil society (available for purchase here) leads to the disruption of democratic processes. Incomprehensible information increases the misunderstanding of ongoing developments. And it leads to a lack of interest in everything that goes on beyond the individual sphere.

      Photo by Marc Kleen on Unsplash

      Let’s pin it down to the urban scale. Highlighted in Peter Marcuse’s paper „From Critical Urban Theory to the Right to the City”, the globally felt dissatisfaction with current worldwide living conditions causes a lot of frustration. The frustration does mainly result from a lack of access to knowledge. It inhibits our understanding of our potential relevance and role in improving our communal situation thus making us feel helpless. The feeling of helplessness is then proliferated by the physical and intellectual expansion of private actors. We cannot judge their impact on our environment, economy, and society. As argued in the much-cited article „Whose City Is It? Globalization and the Formation of New Claims” by Saskia Sassen, it is those entities suppressing the individual from the public.

      Science Communicators within Democratic Environments

      The widely spread misconception supporting notions of helplessness, is that scientific and academic knowledge can be produced by trained specialists only. Sure, specialization gives more capability for the execution and judgment of research. Following the argumentation of Bruno Latour in his 1993 published book „We have never been modern” however, research depends on the co-production and co-creation of information. To his understanding, Social change happens on a healthy, genuine, and transparent plane. It is all about giving people the feeling of autonomy and the capacity to govern themselves.

      Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

      On a similar path to Latour, in „Expertise, Democracy and Science Communication”, Bruce V. Lewenstein argues, that the more civil society comprehends science, the more attentive and appreciative they are of it. In return, this increases public demand and therefore potential funding. At the same time, as pointed out by Bernard Schiele et al. in ‘Science Communication and Democracy’, the co-creation of information leads to a more heterogeneous society. A society that is able to make informed and thus more sophisticated decisions about the future of our planet.

      What Science Communication Can Do

      Science communication alone will not solve the issue of a declining global democracy. It does, however, play a role in taking researched data from the hands of the selected few and spreading it into the possession of the multitudes. This decentralization of knowledge is an important factor of egalitarianism, but also in the creation of a well-informed voter. It improves the quality of decision-making in a democratic state. In „Scientific Citizenship in a Democratic Society”, Vilhjálmur Árnason from the University of Iceland argues that science communication and more explicitly scientific literacy drives public policy making. He claims that the creation of forums for reciprocal teaching is key for battling ignorance and shaping sustainable societal change. For interested readers, Daniel Williams from The Hasting Center further investigates the concept of ‘motivated ignorance’.

      Photo by Danny Lines on Unsplash

      Finally, this is where science communication can have a deeper impact. Knowledge democracy, as Alice Lemkes names the challenge of science communication in her white paper for Lankelly Chase, is the only way to counteract the inflexible system of hierarchical and undemocratic knowledge production.

      This Reading List was written by Zuzanna Zajac.

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      RL #019: Why Communication is a Crucial Part of any Science Endeavour

      At Oikoplus we offer science communication. But why actually? What was the purpose of communicating research results to a broad audience again? Isn’t there a specialised audience for research? Isn’t it enough for those who know about it to read and talk about research? Well. There are valid reasons for a broad approach to scientific outreach. In this Reading List, you will find some of them.

      In German, there is the expression “coming down to earth”. The metaphor is used to call for a discussion to be calibrated back to the shared factual basis when it has gotten out of hand and untruths or lies have crept in. Knowledge of facts and facts are the result of research and science. So it is precisely the ground from the metaphor that is at stake. And it is not only experts who walk on this ground, but all of us – even if we all leave it occasionally. Some more rarely, some more often, whether consciously or unconsciously.

      For a more inclusive science

      In 2015, Mónica Feliú-Mójer summarised for Scientific American’s blog why effective communication makes for better science. When scientists are able to communicate effectively beyond their peers to a broader, non-scientific audience, it strengthens support for science, promotes understanding of its broader importance to society, and encourages more informed decision-making. Communication can also make science accessible to audiences traditionally excluded from the scientific process. It can help science become more diverse and inclusive.

      Science for the common good

      In texts on science communication, one reads time and again that researchers should not lose contact with society. Of course not. Why should research stand outside society? Ideally, research should serve society. However, this relationship between science and civil society is by no means self-evident. In an article for The conversation, Toss Gascoigne and Joan Leach, both professors at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University, argue that the 20th century can be read as a long plea for sience communication in the interest of the common good.

      Not even researchers read research papers only

      Dmitry Dorofeev takes a short excursion into the history of science communication. In an article on the importance of science communication in layman’s terms, he starts from the 19th century. According to Dorofeev, in 1895 an editor of the Viennese daily newspaper Neue Freie Presse learned by chance about the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen, but recognised the significance and placed an article on the front page of his newspaper. The London Chronicle, the New York Sun, and by the New York Times did later pick up this article. The rapid dissemination of this imaging method in mass media, certainly contributed to the fact that X-ray technology was mentioned in 1000+ scientific articles the following year, says Dorofeev. After all – and this is still true today – researchers do not only inform themselves in specialised publications.

      Promotion or PR?

      Communicating research and science in a way that as many people as possible can participate is a noble reason. It allows society to benefit and researchers to inform themselves about the work of their colleagues. In addition, science communication increasingly serves as advertising and PR for individual research institutions and science locations. Empirically, Peter Weingart and Marina Joubert at Stellenbosch University in South Africa looked at the motivations to engage in science communication. Based on their findings on the ever-increasing actively pursued science communication, the authors conclude that a distinction between educational and promotional forms of science communication maintains the credibility of science.

      There are a number of good reasons for communicating science and the results of research in a way they are understandable and interesting. The most important of all reasons remains that the ground of facts cited at the beginning must be ordered. Because curiosity, knowledge and innovation grow on it. 
       
       In our ArcheoDanube project, we are therefore trying to make archaeology accessible to tourists in a sustainable way and to make the results of research on the history of the Danube region accessible to as many people as possible. Indeed, the coordinators just published the fourth newsletter of the Interreg project.  
       
       

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      RL #017: Ethics in Science Communication

      In this rather short reading list, we address the question of whether there are ethical standards that science communication should adhere to. A simple answer is: yes, of course. On closer examination, however, the question is not so trivial. For debates about ethical issues are omnipresent in science as well as in the communication industry. The laws of the communications industry do not apply to science. Scientific standards do not apply to the communications industry. In practice, this not-so-small difference became clear at the beginning of the Corona pandemic, when the government of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia commissioned a study and this was then exploited to the maximum by a professional PR agency, possibly also leaving the interpretation of the scientific results to the PR agency. The case is summarised in a (German) article by KOM- Magazin für Kommunikation.

      The Good Scientific Practice

      The high standards it sets for itself in the production of knowledge make research become science. These standards of scientific work include transparency and the reproducibility of its methods as well as aspects such as honesty, accountability and reliability. In sum, adherence to scientific standards leads to Good Scientific Practice. Scientific standards are the answer to the question of how research must be conducted in order to be recognised as science. They ensure that scientific knowledge is distinguishable from empirical knowledge, anecdotal knowledge, mere tradition or religious knowledge. They ensure scientific integrity. A comprehensive definition of these standards can be found in the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity.

      Constant Self-Assessment

      However, Good Scientific Practice alone is not necessarily sufficient to also meet ethical standards. Good scientific practice answers the question of how research is to be conducted in order to have integrity. Ethical standards also touch on the question of what should or should not be done in research. This involves the role of human and animal test subjects in research, the handling of personal data, from photos to the individual human genome. When it comes to the question of ethics in science, many research institutions rely on the constant self-assessment of researchers. The European Commission provides guidelines for the implementation of such self-assessments in EU-funded projects.

      The Good Science-PR

      All this concerns science. But what about ethics in science communication? Are there also standards and criteria for good science PR and dissemination, or even for the ethically correct SciComm? To put it in a nutshell: Yes, there are such standards, e.g. set up in 2016 by Wissenschaft im Dialog and the German Federal Association of University Communication (Bundesverband Hochschulkommunikation). They can be found here.

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      RL #015: Citizen Science: Choose your Communication Wisely

      This 15th issue of the Oikoplus Reading List is about Citizen Science in theory and practice. Read on to discover 10 principles for Citizen Science projects, practical tips, and theoretical reflection on the concept of Citizen Science.

      Citizen Science is one of those terms that seems new and innovative, although it actually refers to an ancient concept. Namely: people who are not scientists doing research. This has been happening all the time. And there are prominent historical examples. When, for example, Wilhelm Herschel discovered Uranus in 1781, he was the director of an orchestra. Astronomy was his hobby.

      When we use the term Citizen Science or one of its many neighboring terms (community science, crowd science, crowd-sourced science, civic science, volunteer science, or volunteers monitoring), we often refer to a comprehensive introduction on Citizen Science formulated by Alan Irving from 1995. A more current overview of the citizen science concept and the potentials of citizen science is provided by Rick Bonney et.al. (2009). Even more recent is the comprehensive introduction ,Citizen Science – Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy’ by Susanne Hecker et.al. (2018). Included amongst other: 10 Principles of Citizen Science.

      Don’t ask what you can do for science. Ask what science does for you.

      With the growing number of Citizen Science projects, questions of philosophy of science and epistemology naturally arise. In the 1970s, Paul Feyerabend explored ways to open science to society. His paper “Science in a Free Society” is a worthwhile introduction to Feyerabend’s work. Find a comment on it, here.

      Feyerabend’s Citizen Science understanding is the subject of a text by Sarah M. Roe. She argues, that “Feyerabend teaches us that while the current citizen science movement focuses primarily on what citizens can do for science […] the movement should also focus on what science can do for citizens and what science can learn from citizens.”

      Mobile apps and OS to support Citizen Science

      But if you’re reading this, you probably don’t just want to deal with Citizen Science theoretically. Perhaps you want to implement your own project. If you want to collect specific scientific samples or artifacts, you might want to use a mobile app. Take Sapelli, for example. The app results from a British research project and grew into an open-source project enabling the collective collection of artifacts. Quite simply on a smartphone.

      Not only has the software for collecting scientific samples become easier to use and more connected. Hardware has also become more affordable. An article on conversavation.com describes how mobile phone cameras document insect species. Also on conversation.com, Australian ornithologist Hugh Possingham describes why he would like to see as many people as possible become involved as amateur scientists. His argument: “If citizens immerse themselves in gathering knowledge and asking questions, they gain power – and are far more likely to engage in participatory democracy.”

      Back to the theory…and the communication of Citizen Science

      Swedish linguist and knowledge theorist Dick Kasperowski takes a somewhat more critical view, in a 2016 interview. He states“[...] citizens are only invited to do certain defined tasks like classifying or collecting data. You are not involved in all stages of the research process, even though that might be an ideal or rhetoric put forward. Citizens do very seldom formulate hypotheses or theories, for instance. No one is forced to take part in citizen science, but it has been criticised as a way of getting labour for free. I wonder what Marx would have said about it.” But now it becomes quite theoretical again. Sorry for that.

      At the end, I would like to refer to a very practical publication. ‘Communication in Citizen Science’ by Carina Veeckman and Sarah Talboom (2019) offers a useful guide to developing a successful communication strategy in citizen science projects. After all, communication is the central key to successful citizen participation in research projects.