What counts as ‘citizen science’?

I haven’t been blogging much of late… okay, at all. But this post by Adam Stevens (and a little nudge from the Blogfather) was enough to wake me from my long blog slumber and post.

Adam* takes issue with Zooniverse, a truly impressive collection of citizen science projects ranging from its namesake Galaxy Zoo to new projects in not only astronomy but climate change, biology, even humanities. He argues that Zooniverse participants’ activities don’t count as ‘science’, but are just ‘data crunching, plain and simple’. He says such crunching is ‘what happens before the science starts’ (his emphasis) and that ‘looking at these images, clicking, sorting, categorising, isn’t the science. The science is in the interpretation that happens afterwards.’

Me, skiing and mulling over what citizen science is.

Me, skiing and mulling over what citizen science is.

What happened next was… I went cross-country skiing. While I was out there, huffing and puffing up uphills, rattling down icy downhills and mulling it over, Justin Starr posted a response that said several things I was planning to say, including that we should take Adam at his word that he not mean to be patronizing to Zooniverse participants and that his error lies in his definition of science.

Also while I was out skiing, people left comments on Adam’s post, many of them noting quite rightly that actually there are opportunities in Zooniverse projects to go beyond data crunching and interpret data.

The question becomes, then, what can I add?

First, I think that whether or not Adam intended to be patronizing towards Zooniverse participants, his post… well, it was. Adam was (as I am) writing from a position of privilege. We are professional scientists with the luxury of being identified by the world as such. When one of us says that while Zooniverse participants should be invited to do science, what they are doing doesn’t count as science, it is, by the very definition, patronizing.

Second, if anyone gets to decide what ‘science’ is and whether Zooniverse participants are doing it, it’s not Adam Stevens. And it’s not me, either. Who is it, then? It is, first and foremost, the participants themselves, and second, those who run Zooniverse and its projects. Why does it matter if anyone else doesn’t think what they’re doing is ‘science’? Who does it hurt? No-one. This is not to say that Adam’ suggestions for more opportunities to understand the meaning of and interpret data are not good ones. But to preface those suggestions by calling the current projects ‘not science’ and to call them instead ‘patronizing slave labour’ is not helpful to anyone.

Digression: One could argue that even if Adam’s suggestions were adopted, interpretations made by participants might not be used by the the professional scientists who are partnering on the project and who are presumably interpreting the data ‘for real’. In other words, even if you provide widgets to help participants understand the meaning of the data they are collecting and processing, they may still not be doing ‘science’ a la Adam.

Third and finally, I’d like to add some insights that I’ve gained from developing my own citizen science project. I was recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to pilot a new framework for citizen science called ‘BioTrails’. In the process of writing the proposal, I learned a lot from my reading and from my collaborators and evaluators.

One of the most important things I learned was about the many different ways that people practice citizen science and how those different practices translate to learning and other positive outcomes for participants. Here’s a quick run-down. As you’ll see, this runs somewhat counter to what Adam wrote in his post about what ‘citizen science’ is and should be.

In 2009, the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) published a study of existing citizen science projects and programs. The report identifies three project types (excerpted below exactly as listed in the report summary):

  • Contributory projects designed by scientists, with participants involved primarily in collecting samples and recording data
  • Collaborative projects in which the public is also involved in analyzing data, refining project design, and disseminating findings
  • Co-created projects are designed by scientists and members of the public working together, and at least some of the public participants are involved in all aspects of the work

The important take-home here for the purposes of this blog post is that all three of these kinds of projects ‘count’ as citizen science. It’s true that each type of project can deliver different kinds of experiences for participants, and result in different learning outcomes. But they count!

So, what are some of these ‘learning outcomes’? In Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments Marilyn Fenichel and Heidi Schweingruber identify six strands of informal science learning:

  1. Sparking Interest and Excitement
  2. Understanding Scientific Content and Knowledge
  3. Engaging in Scientific Reasoning
  4. Reflecting on Science
  5. Using the Tools and Language of Science
  6. Identifying with the Scientific Enterprise

Looking at this list, it is obvious that whether or not Zooniverse participants interpret the data they collect or process, they can benefit from several of these kinds of learning. There is a lot more to say – and a lot more that has been said – about citizen science and how it can lead to learning. My point here is simply to highlight the breadth of what may ‘count’ as ‘citizen science’ and some of the many learning outcomes that can result, and to applaud the Zooniverse for their very significant contributions to the field and, most importantly, to their participants.

*On initial posting, I had ‘Dr. Stevens’ throughout, but he kindly informed me he hasn’t received his PhD yet, hence ‘Adam’.

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12 thoughts on “What counts as ‘citizen science’?

  1. Josh Witten

    Under most definitions, collecting evidence with which we evaluate hypotheses is part of the scientific method. If you are participating in the scientific method, seems to me you are doing science. I for one would not want to tell any lab technician expertly executing assays day after day that they are not doing “science”.

    There is, however, a point to avoiding the trend of using “science” generically and vaguely. While referring to the Curiosity rover “doing science” is technically accurate according to my previous paragraph, it glosses over exactly how the rover is contributing to the process of scientific discovery on Mars.

  2. Kathleen Toerpe, PhD

    I’m just putting the finishing touches to a paper on citizen science for the World Future Society conference in July. What Adam is missing, I think, is the human element here. Overall, citizen scientists are painstaking and meticulous in their work, volunteering hours identifying patterns, tagging anomalies, recording observations and so on – in other words, showing personal commitment while making their own contributions to the larger body of knowledge. Sounds like what a lot of “real” scientists do, too, doesn’t it? As far as the label of “patronizing slave labour,” well, that label can apply just as easily to grad students, postdocs and adjuncts. That’s a larger problem that academia needs to deal with…

  3. Andrew Collins

    You bring up an important point – when we as scientists try to understand and quantify the value of citizen science projects, we must look to the participants involved first. The strands of informal science learning provided by Fenichel and Schweingruber are helpful in categorizing the ways the public can benefit – yet the learning outcomes from CS projects like Zoonivserse are certainty not limited to these six. I’ll be leading a session at the scioteen conference this April – our goal is to introduce middle and high school students to citizen science work & encourage them to study the biodiversity of NYC. This post has definitely helped me think more about CS projects and how we can assess their impacts on students in particular.

  4. Karen James Post author

    Thanks for your comment and glad you found the post helpful. I agree that participants should be the focus, but I’d add that doesn’t mean that every project has to have participant learning as its primary objective. It might be secondary, and as simple as participants having fun. There are many models for success.

  5. Paula Zevin

    Citizen Science is one of the many facets of science. It is vital not to belittle or exalt any particular side of it, we can all learn from each other. The importance of Citizen Science is that it can spark a whole new area of pure research; at the other end, Science (with a capital “C”) can translate into blazing a new trail for everyone’s daily lives and the planet. It’s a two-way street, a give-and-take, very necessary for progress.

  6. Hilton Ratcliffe (@HiltonRatcliffe)

    Thanks for your thoughts, Karen, and for stimulating mine. Speaking as a space science professional, my position is quite unembellished – the citizens who participated in Galaxy Zoo helped us enormously. As a project, it worked very well indeed and produced useful results. As to Adam’s aspersions: Whether or not I define words and develop adjectives so that the amateurs fit or don’t fit in with the scientific old boys’ club doesn’t mean a row of beans to me. I use lab assistants and colleagues from the engineering faculty to develop instruments for my empirical exercises, and without them I could not proceed. Milton Humason springs immediately to mind; he was a retreaded mule driver who played a vital part in getting Edwin Hubble’s science out into the public domain. The late Patrick Moore was the doyen of citizen scientists, with an absolutely encyclopaedic knowledge of real things on the sky, yet he barely finished high school. Think Michael Faraday. So let’s drop the elitism, shall we?

  7. rbookman

    Many thanks for this posting and for increasing both awareness and the richness of the discussion on this topic.

    I wonder if there is an even broader notion of citizen science that is missing in this thread so far, and it’s a notion that draws from history.

    Interestingly, your blog page has a quote from Charles Darwin at the very top. And your own work, reflected in the UK charity HMS Beagle Project, is clearly inspired by him. Did Darwin have an advanced degree when he boarded the Beagle? Did he have a faculty position or other job that might be construed as that of a ‘scientist’? By any current measure, was Darwin a ‘scientist’ when he boarded the ship? To all these questions, I think the answer is ‘no’. I’d suggest that Darwin, during the voyage of the Beagle, was a citizen scientist. Recall that 1831, the year that the Beagle set sail, was also the year that Darwin got his undergraduate degree from Cambridge.

    And Darwin is just one example.

    The professionalization of science is a relatively recent phenomenon….and the construction of the cultural, linguistic, institutional and practical wall between citizens and science is, similarly, a (relatively) recent construction.

    Science, as a human activity, started with nothing other than citizens doing science. We could call that ‘research 1.0′. Over the last century or two, the activity became increasingly limited to organizations (like research universities and corporate labs) and participation was limited to the professionals with lengthy degree and postdoc training as apprenticeship requirements. We could call this ‘research 2.0′, a burst of extraordinary productivity fueled globally by substantial government and private sector investment.

    But now, there are significant stresses and strains on the 2.x system and citizen science is a hopeful sign…not so much a mutation but rather a memory or deja vu, reminding us of how we got here.

    Part of what is exciting to me about net-enabled science, open sourced tools, and open access scientific literature is the possibility that we (scientists) can significantly expand the scientific endeavor by welcoming back citizens, building powerful platforms for broadly collaborative discovery, and diminishing the power of the various “guilds” that kept participation to a limited few.

    Your thoughtful posting is a great contribution to an open, global design discussion for ‘research 3.0′.

    Thanks!

  8. Brian Schmidt

    “Theories come and go, but fundamental data always remains.”
    -Mary Leakey

    I’d be a little concerned about a scientist that didn’t think good data collection was science.

  9. Kimiora Ward

    Karen, this is such an important message. As I work to train student and recently graduated research assistants in data collection methods I am frequently struck by how important their role is, despite the fact that they can often be overlooked or under-appreciated. In fact, our ability to draw *any* conclusions rests entirely on their ability and willingness to make precise, accurate and thorough observations, to see subtle variations, and to meticulously and consistently record them. Collecting solid data is the foundation of the whole enterprise, and these are contributions that anyone with the right attitude can make, no matter what their level of previous training.

  10. Karen James Post author

    I’m really delighted to see these thoughtful and insightful comments continuing to bubble up. Thank you, everyone.

    @rbookman, to add to your note about Darwin, in addition to being a citizen scientist himself (as almost everyone was then) he involved his own children in collecting data and doing experiments and then later even encouraged them to submit their results for publication as a correspondence (anonymously so no one would think they’d just had it accepted because if their famous father). I can’t find the citation just now but will share it here if and when I do.

    @Kimiora, I agree. Training, support and mutual respect are so important to both the data collectors and the projects they are collecting data for, whether they’re citizen scientists or the undergraduate students, graduate students, research assistants, etc. who have ‘traditionally’ been the data collectors for scientific research. I wonder if there are some resources and support that could be shared between the two groups.

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