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Citizen science fills an invaluable gap

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Citizen science fills an invaluable gap

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I’ve written a number of times about the rise in citizen science, and it is undoubtedly one of the more exciting applications of social behavior online in recent years.

For instance, at the back end of last year, I wrote about a study that compared the performance of citizen scientists with their professional peers.

“What we can say is that a very large group of volunteers was able to chart these features on the moon just as well as professional researchers,”said Research Scientist Stuart Robbins of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, who led the study.

Further support for the citizen science movement has come via a recent study that looked at the kind of work typically farmed out to the crowd.

The researchers used Zooniverse as their petri dish, and set out to try and find any shared characteristics of crowd based projects.

“We are seeing projects that couldn’t be done before, and we are seeing them done on a massive scale and at a fast speed,” the researchers say. “However, these are not conventional laboratory research projects going online. It’s not a substitution of crowd science for conventional research projects.”

Unlike the study referenced earlier, this second paper suggests that citizen scientists are often required merely to follow simple instructions, with little real subject knowledge required.  It’s grunt work in other words, that is valuable, but no real substitute for real scientists.

“The key is to translate the complicated science into something that’s easily done by people who don’t need to understand the scientific details,” the researchers explain. “The broad idea is to get people involved who have an interest in science, even if it is a fairly shallow interest. Anybody can participate as long as they have a computer and can do the basic tasks required.”

The findings came after an exploration of seven projects hosted at Zooniverse.  The paper suggested that there were a core of super users who undertook the bulk of the work, which was a similar finding to a previous study into the Zooniverse community.

They found that the vast majority of users only participate in a single project, with half of those that do participate drifting away after 15 days.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the user graph exhibited a traditional long tail, with the top users contributing around 100 times more than the average user.

When this long tail consists of many thousands of users however, it adds up to a considerable sum.  Over a 180 day period for instance, the seven projects received nearly 130,000 hours of unpaid labor, spread across over 100,000 users.  If that labor was paid for, it would have cost around $1.5 million.

The costs of citizen science

There are of course costs involved in citizen science too.  The paper highlights the importance of designing tasks in such a way that they can be done by amateur enthusiasts.  Infrastructure must also be setup to support this, with promotional work undergone to attract participants.

“It’s not like simply outsourcing something,” the researchers say. “It’s a big-time commitment on the part of the scientists to make these things happen. Because of the investment, this makes the most sense for projects that have a large scale, where a lot of outside help is needed.”

These costs are largely identical to those involved in any crowdsourced project however, and the researchers firmly believe that we are merely at the beginning of the citizen science journey.

“I think we are really at the beginning of something big,” they say. “But it’s going to be difficult to get people to participate in topics that don’t seem interesting or important to society. There may be areas of science that seem boring or unimportant. If asked to help with such projects, people may just prefer to watch television.”

Last year theCollaborative Sciencewebsite launched to try and help organizations get cracking with citizen science.

The site was created by a consortium of five universities with the aim of training naturalists in ecology, scientific modeling and adaptive management.  They would then be given a space on the site to give students the chance to put their training into action.

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