I’m quoted at the end of a WIRED UK piece on citizen science. This is a longer version of my response to questions.
Q. In what ways does crowdsourcing scientific data analysis offer new opportunities for scientific research, and what potential pitfalls does it create?
The cynical reply is that it offers a chance for science to tap into a lot of free labour. We might see it as “Big society science” in a really negative way which devalues the work of professional scientists and only really offers the public very low-skilled mundane tasks as opposed to meaningful interactions with expertise.
Less cynically, we might hope that the postdoc who used to have to do all that data collection can be freed to do something more interesting (and which applies their skills more effectively). Also, that the data collection can be an invite for a member of the public to learn more about the science and to feel involved in a way which may well lead to more developed interaction. I think the Zoo projects and OPAL have both been quite successful in this, for example.
More pragmatically, there are perhaps pitfalls in terms of quality. I heard of one citizen science project which ended up switching back to a more traditional model of employing professionals because they had to do so much work checking crowdsourced data anyway. But equally, some projects find that they gain a lot from a more tapping into the wisdom and more diverse geographical positions of the crowd. Our notions of what we mean by quality are worth reflecting upon at times, and public engagement can help us do this. It often depends on what the project’s aiming to do. This sort of model doesn’t fit all research projects. Even when it does, it’ll fit in different ways.
Q. Would you agree that the problems tackled by crowdsourced data analysis thus far are the low-hanging fruit, and if so, is this an inherent problem with the approach?
I’m not sure I’d say it was low hanging fruit, or an inherent problem. I think there’s scope for developing ideas of what we mean by crowdsourcing science and how we do it, and we’ve already seen a lot of innovation, but that you can’t expect it to work across the whole of science simply because science is a very diverse beast, bits of it work very differently from others.
Q. To what extent is crowdsourcing data analysis more about generating awareness of an issue than doing good science?
I’m not sure I’d say it was one or the other – maybe ‘generating a sense of involvement’ is a better phrase than ‘awareness’ – it can be both though. It entirely varies. At its best, I think, citizen science generates a sense of involvement, builds awareness of a range of scientific and science policy issues, does good science and invites people to get more deeply engaged in the political processes which build how we do science as well as learning more about the natural world (and possibly themselves) through science. It can do other things too though, social inclusion for example, or involvement in environmental policy, or ways for citizens to share and do science with one another without any need to feed back to the elite establishment.
Q. With GeneGame and Fraxinus, researchers are gamifying part of the scientific method. If this generates useful data, should this be welcomed or are there risks associated with this trend?
If it works, yes, go ahead. I’d like to see our ideas of ‘game’ pushed a bit in such work, though I think the best projects are already doing that.
Q. Does the failure to crowdsource the methodology as well as the data analysis, an unavoidable result of gamifying the problem, reduce the usefulness of current citizen science approaches?
No. But I’d like to see projects which try involve people with political processes of science at least, if not methods too, otherwise the effect can be rather to paint the public in the role of player, not builder of science.
I’m tempted to argue that we can’t really ‘gamify’ science because the rules of the game of science are never set. Science communication, like science itself, should always be about discussing and unpicking any rules we might work to. But I have hope that people can build games which listen as well as educate and/ or collect data.