Citizen science: New path for research

You don’t need a white lab coat or goggles for this research. Meet citizen science, the engagement of everyday folks in contributing to projects that require sorting through mountains of data and images. Interpretation: Now, anyone with computer skills can participate in research. 

A combination of 10 years of Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken of a patch of sky at the center of the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Photo: NASA
A combination of 10 years of Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken of a patch of sky at the center of the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Photo: NASA

An ornithologist, an astrophysicist and a neuroscientist discussed this growing trend at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago. Their program discussed “Advances in Citizen Science: Large-Scale Community Engagement for Sensing and Analysis.”

The openness that is citizen science

Citizen science is prevalent and trusted but still somewhat invisible, said Caren Cooper, a research associate at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University. “Right now you can’t really quantify the scientific or social impact of citizen science,” she said.

In a survey of scientific studies needing long-term, large-scale data — on birds and climate change, for her research — she counted about 170 papers.

Half of those papers relied on contributions from citizen science, according to responses to her survey. “How many of those papers used the term ‘citizen science’? None,” Cooper said. “Not one of the papers that relied on citizen science data used the term anywhere.”

The motivations of citizen science are based on a shift in the public’s relationship with scientific research. “I think people today expect the products of science to be openly available,” Cooper said. “They expect access to knowledge, whether it’s Wikipedia or open-access journals.” She mentioned the suicide of Aaron Swartz, the internet activist who was facing criminal charges for downloading millions of research articles from MIT’s online repository before he died.

“When we’re talking about citizen science, we’re not just talking about the end-products of science being available,” Cooper said. “We’re talking about the process of science being available and accessible to people.”

The state of the online movement

There are many ways of contributing to a community project grounded in science — the Belly Button Biodiversity project comes to mind. North Carolina State University scientists recruited more than 500 volunteers to swab their navels and invited the world to analyze the resultant information to build a database of the microbes that call human bodies home.

But with the growing reach of the internet, online citizen science is now the mode of operation du jour. “I tend to use ‘citizen science’ to mean the online engagement of volunteers with very large data sets as a means of overcoming the data flood,” said Chris Lintott, an astrophysics researcher at the University of Oxford and the founder of Galaxy Zoo and the Zooniverse project that grew from it, which is now run by Adler Planetarium.

Moving projects online brings advantages of scale — many more participants can together process a larger volume of data — and speed — faster sign ups and shorter response times to any problems.

In an overview of the emergence of citizen science, Lintott described the reversal of roles that took place about 15 years ago, when  amateur astronomers went from telling professionals what to look for to providing observations for professionals as a basis for some of their interpretations.

“What citizen science represents is the chance to get people who never think of themselves as scientists inside the building and the project of science,” Lintott said.

A game, a race

Introducing the element of competition to processing data could speed up the analysis and make science fun for participants. EyeWire, a project that invites users to help the system map out in 3D the neuron network in the human brain, features a “leaderboard” to recognize top contributors on its website.

“I’m not sure if you’ll find (the game itself) fun — it’s just a three-dimensional coloring book — but I want to prove to you that some people find this really fun,” said Sebastian Seung, the scientist behind EyeWire, and a professor of computer science at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. Seung went on to quote some EyeWire participants’ comments posted on the website’s chat system.

“I’m comfortably enough in the top five, so I think I can afford to go take a shower,” one user typed.

“We know there are neurons that respond selectively to complicated stimuli,” Seung said. “But we have no idea why that’s the case. That’s the general problem in neuroscience: lots of description, but very little explanation.”

To understand the brain, researchers need amazing technologies for observing it and for digesting and understanding that data, Seung said. “The brain is a great challenge, but the people united will never be defeated.”