Working in the Shadows: Anonymous Contributions by Users in Citizen Science

Publication Type:



Syracuse University School of Information Studies, Syracuse, NY (2017)


anonymity, Citizen Science, Online communities


Researchers studying the behaviour of users of online community systems often base their analyses on the logs of activities captured by the system (e.g., the record of a comment post or of an edit). The history of users’ interactions can reveal, for example, how users move from novices to experts and the steps they take as they learn to contribute to the community. However, some systems allow users to contribute without logging in or even having an account. Since these anonymous events are not associated with a particular user in the logs, they are generally not included in analyses of user behaviour. Omitting anonymous events may bias findings of studies of user behaviour related to trajectories of membership or learning. We investigated the characteristics of anonymous work in an online citizen science project. Our analysis suggests that at least 50 percent of users with accounts also contributed anonymously, for an average of 8.9 anonymous events. We also found users “look” significantly different when anonymous events are included in their history. These findings suggest that studies examining user histories may reach different conclusions when including anonymous work.

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