People who give up their time for online volunteering are mainly motivated by a desire to learn, a new study has found.
The research surveyed volunteers on 'citizen science' projects and suggests that this type of volunteering could be used to increase general knowledge of science within society.
The research, led by the University of Portsmouth, discovered that an appetite to learn more about the subject was the number one driver for online volunteers, followed by being part of a community. It also revealed that many volunteers are motivated by a desire for escapism.
Online volunteering and crowdsourcing projects typically involve input from large numbers of contributors working individually but towards a common goal. This study surveyed 2000 people who volunteer for 'citizen science' projects hosted by Zooniverse, a collection of research projects that rely on volunteers to help scientists with the challenge of interpreting massive amounts of data.
Dr Joe Cox, who led the research, said that while the projects don't require specialist knowledge, volunteer effort and retention seems to be most strongly driven by a desire to enhance knowledge and understanding. He said: "We also found that those whose motivation was to learn were also more active over longer periods and undertook the most amount of work.
"What was interesting was that characteristics such as age, gender and level of education had no correlation with the amount of time people give up and the length of time they stay on a project. These participants were relatively highly educated compared with the rest of the population, but those with the highest levels of education do not appear to contribute the most effort and information towards these projects."
The study noticed pronounced changes in how people are motivated at different stages of the volunteer process. While a desire to learn is the most important motivation among contributors at the early stages, the opportunities for social interaction and escapism become more important motivations at later stages.
Dr Cox said that it is important to understand the motivations of citizen scientists due to the possibility of increased competition to recruit and retain such volunteers in the future.
"We know that citizen science projects place huge value on volunteers because the combined 'wisdom of crowds' achieves so much. For example, Galaxy Zoo, which asks volunteers to analyse galaxies and the data helps astrophysicists develop a better understanding of the evolution of the universe. Their work contributes the amount of information that it would take a professional researcher 34 years working alone to complete and it will be just as accurate if not more."
He suggests that online volunteering and citizen science projects could incentivise participation by offering clearly defined opportunities for learning, while representing an effective way of increasing scientific literacy and knowledge within society.
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