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Pearls across the Zooniverse: When Crowdsourcing Becomes Citizen Science

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


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Recently, Adam Stevens looked at where crowdsourcing ends and citizen science begins and raised his doubt that the projects in the Zooniverse qualify as citizen science. According to Stevens, categorizing images (“data crunching, plain and simple”) is what happens before science really starts. When I run a race, it appears to start with the bang of a cap gun, but it really begins months earlier when I start training. A new era of space exploration didn’t start when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon; it began with a lot of data crunching at mission control. Similarly, in citizen science, there are many ways to draw boundaries to parse these types of collaborative efforts, but I’m not sure what purpose is served by narrow ones.

Others have already responded to explain why the Zooniverse projects count as citizen science, such as here, here, and here. Citizen science broadly encompasses public involvement in science, and, until I saw Karen James’s response to Stevens, I didn’t realize people were discussing the nuances of what does or does not qualify as citizen science.

Stevens’ view of clicking and tagging in the Zooniverse reminds me of the scientific hierarchy defined by William Whewell. He used the term ‘subordinate laborers’ to describe citizen science participants in his Great Tide Experiment of 1835. To paraphrase, Whewell wrote that lay people are capable of collecting information, like gathering pearls, while professional scientists have the ability to make meaning of the information, like stringing the pearls into a necklace. A stereotypical portrait of science focuses on a lone, unkempt individual working long hours to progress slowly and iteratively through the steps of the scientific method.

To understand Zooniverse-style citizen science, instead imagine science based on massively collaborative efforts where tasks are divvied up. Citizen science can look like a hobby, a game, a puzzle, brainstorming, or even like mind-numbing drudgery. Citizen science projects vary in how much they open the door for people to have access to creating knowledge. Sometimes a project has to entice people in, and in other cases people are banging down the door. If Stevens defines citizen science participation as narrowly as stringing pearls, that model is never going to open the doors of science very wide, let alone bring in hundreds of thousands of people like the Zooniverse has done.

So far the discussion has focused on defining citizen science based on the perspective of individual participants, their activities, and whether they truly experienced or learned about the scientific process, as though these features were the basis for determining what is and isn’t citizen science. The common denominator for all citizen science is collaborative research that includes members of the public in any one of a variety of ways; some projects have no explicit public education goals. I am in awe of the science learning and social outcomes of citizen science, BUT I don’t see the need to use the presence or quality of science learning and social outcomes as criteria for determining what qualifies as citizen science. Citizen science, like other types of science, happens when it produces reliable, new knowledge. Participants in the Zooniverse have done science because they’ve helped in the long process to produce reliable, new knowledge.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the word “citizen” in relation to governance confers rights and responsibilities to a participating member of a country. In the context of citizen science, “citizen” conveys the idea that anybody can assume rights and responsibilities to participate in the enterprise of science. In both cases, a citizen participates in a much bigger, collective process. Citizen science doesn’t mean participants necessarily become scientists and do everything. If the goal of a citizen science project was to have participants carry out all phases of science independently, well….that’s the same goal of PhD programs.

Images: MASAYUKI KATO; Abraham Pisarek, and German Federal Archives.

Caren Cooper About the Author: Caren Cooper, PhD, is a Research Associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She studies bird behavior, reproduction, and ecology at large scales using data from citizen science networks. In addition, Cooper works with social scientists to study why people get involved in citizen science and nature-based recreation. She has analyzed how citizen-science methods have been used to aid urban planning, e-governance, and policy initiatives. She is writing a nonfiction book about citizen science and is a Senior Fellow in the Environmental Leadership Program. Follow on Twitter @CoopSciScoop.

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






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  1. 1. WRQ9 2:25 pm 02/28/2013

    The goal of “citizen science” is, in the oldest of American tradition, to achieve exclusivity as cheaply and easily as possible. Yet another venue for colleges to maximize the value of being the only intellectual focal point available to a frustrated and abused public. The second perpetuating factor is that assembling the data base requires no real imagination or acumen and the data base itself is considered an “achievement” whether it is useful or not.
    The harm of such path of least resistance pursuits is subtler than any successful criticism of education would ever reach, but it is real, powerful and manifold. The stealthy change of the American college from a reliable source of intellectual capacity, to the only defensible source of information of any kind, is a mutual power grab that has made this country a victim of the worst kind of cynicism and misdirection possible.
    The “public” has always been robbed of ideas by quick thinking capitalists, but until recently, they had never been robbed of the possibility of having ideas. By quantifying demographic propensity, and calling it science, we will eventually rule out the possibility of individual achievement once and for all.
    I’m sorry I can’t support the modern optimists. To me, they are by design, trying to redefine intelligence as a purely social pursuit.

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  2. 2. kejames 3:11 pm 02/28/2013

    So far the discussion has focused on defining citizen science based on the perspective of individual participants, their activities, and whether they truly experienced or learned about the scientific process, as though these features were the basis for determining what is and isn’t citizen science.

    I’m so glad to read this. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately both as part of this week’s discussion and as I develop my own citizen science project. We need to separate what we intend or hope a particular project will achieve, whether we’ve designed so that it will achieve that, and, afterwards, whether it has in fact achieved it, from the question, ‘but is it really citizen science?’ Frankly, I’d much rather spend time discussing the former.

    That said, this conversation has been mostly about the latter, so, let’s move on to this…

    The common denominator for all citizen science is collaborative research that includes members of the public in any one of a variety of ways…

    I have a few nits to pick here. First, it can be citizen science without being collaborative. An individual person could do science in their backyard or garage without collaborating with a professional scientist or anyone else and it could still be considered citizen science. Second, I think ‘members of the public’ is too specific (wow… never thought I’d type those words!). It could be anyone who isn’t a professional scientist in that field doing the work they are paid to do, including, for example, schoolchildren. This definition also doesn’t emphasize as much as I’d like that ‘research’ means doing original work, not repeating something we’ve already done for the benefit of the participant. That would be ‘education’. Which is why I like what you said here better:

    Citizen science, like other types of science, happens when it produces reliable, new knowledge.

    So let’s combine these two ideas and say that perhaps citizen science is novel, rigorous scientific research undertaken by, or, more commonly, involving the participation of people who are not professional scientists carrying out the work as a part of their vocation.

    Link to this
  3. 3. kejames 3:13 pm 02/28/2013

    Blarrrgh… so much for blockquote!

    Link to this
  4. 4. JMI99 11:52 pm 02/28/2013

    Really interesting Caren, thanks.

    Given your interest, I think that you (and the other readers here) would be really interested in some recent research that I have come across that theorizes about citizen science, crowds, and such similar phenomena. It’s called “The Theory of Crowd Capital” and you can download it here if you’re interested.

    In my view it provides a powerful, yet simple model, getting to the heart of the matter. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2193115

    Enjoy!

    Link to this
  5. 5. pf12345 8:31 am 03/19/2013

    Adam Stevens is splitting hairs and making an insignifacnt argument. Suggesting citizens participating in science is not citizen science is also irrational.

    At WildlifeSightings.net we consider all public particpation in scientific activities to be citizen science. Be it recording or analyzing data.

    Link to this

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