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Can Smart Phones Help Create Smarter Science?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Can smart phones change the way we do research? Cognitive scientists believe that they may provide a vital means of widening the participant pool, as discussed in a recent September PLoS paper that explores the intersection of technology and behavioral experiments.

The potential application of Internet-based research to extend laboratory exercises to wider audiences has been a tantalizingly frustrating endeavor. While it can make available a larger and possibly more diverse sample for researchers, measuring precision has been a large concern. Technological data collection strategies do not record the minute changes that constitute cognitive processes.

Smartphones may change this.

Researchers used the iPhone/iPad devices to test a classic cognitive psychology task and have found that their results for data submitted from these devices closely match the data in similar tasks in a laboratory setting. The iPhone/iPad devices offer “high temporal and spatial resolution with built-in millisecond timing of stimuli display and touchscreen responses” (1). Not to mention, the devices are essentially identical, highly portable, and media ready. Participants only have to “opt-in” to the study by downloading an app.

The task the researchers chose was the lexical decision task, which asks participants to identify words (TABLE) from non-words (TIBLE), and measures response time and accuracy. They designed a freely available app which tested responses to these types of stimuli and invited participants to submit their responses via email. Participants could also provide basic demographic information if they chose. The researchers report collecting 4157 responses in four months, noting that it took more than three years to collect similar amounts of data (2).

If smartphone technology can assist as a data-collection tool, it has the potential to help cross cultural boundaries in research. It’s a uniform object that a growing number of people around the world have within arm’s length at almost all times. Would you be more willing to participate in formal research projects via apps, if you could? What would encourage you to participate?

Referenced:
Dufau S, Duñabeitia JA, Moret-Tatay C, McGonigal A, Peeters D, Alario FX, Balota DA, Brysbaert M, Carreiras M, Ferrand L, Ktori M, Perea M, Rastle K, Sasburg O, Yap MJ, Ziegler JC, & Grainger J (2011). Smart phone, smart science: how the use of smartphones can revolutionize research in cognitive science. PloS one, 6 (9) PMID: 21980370

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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