Research questions, abstract problems – a round table on Citizen Science

I recently participated in a round-table discussion entitled “Impossible Partnerships”, organized by The Cultural Capital Exchange at the Royal Institution, on the theme of Citizen Science; the Impossibe Partnerships of the title being those between the academy and the wider public. It is always interesting to attend citizen science events – I get so caught up in the humanities crowdsourcing world (such as it is) that it’s good to revisit the intellectual field that it came from in the first place. This is one of those blog posts whose main aim is to organize my own notes and straighten my own thinking after the event, so don’t read on if you are expecting deep or profound insights.

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Crucible of knowledge: the Royal Institution’s famous lecture theatre

Galaxy Zoo of course featured heavily. This remains one of the poster-child citizen science projects, because it gets the basics right. It looks good, it works, it reaches out to build relationships with new communities (including the humanities), and it is particularly good at taking what works and configuring it to function in those new communities. We figured that one of the common factors that keeps it working across different areas is its success in tapping in to intrinsic motivations of people who are interested in the content – citizen scientists are interested in science. There is also an element of altruism involved, giving one’s time and effort for the greater good – but one point I think we agreed on is that it is far, far easier to classify the kinds of task involved, rather than the people undertaking them. This was our rationale in that 2012 scoping study of humanities crowdsourcing.

A key distinction was made between projects which aggregate or process data, and those which generate new data. Galaxy Zoo is mainly about taking empirical content and aggregating it, in contrast, say, to a project that seeks to gather public observations of butterfly or bird populations. This could be a really interesting distinction for humanities crowdsourcing too, but one which becomes problematic where one type of question leads to the other. What if content is processed/digitized through transcription (for example), and this seeds ideas which leads to amateur scholars generating blog posts, articles, discussions, ideas, books etc… Does this sort of thing happen in citizen science (genuine question – maybe it does).  So this is one of those key distinctions between citizen science and citizen humanities. The raw material of the former is often natural phenomena – bird populations, raw imagery of galaxies, protein sequences – but in the latter it can be digital material that “citizen humanists” have created from whatever source.

Another key question which came up several times during the afternoon was the nature of science itself, and how citizen science relates to it. A professional scientist will begin an experiment with several possible hypotheses, then test them against the data. Citizen scientists do not necessarily organize their thinking in this way. This raises the question: can the frameworks and research questions of a project be co-produced with public audiences? Or do they have to be determined by a central team of professionals, and farmed out to wider audiences? This is certainly the implication of Jeff Howe’s original framing of crowdsourcing:

“All these companies grew up in the Internet age and were designed to take advantage of the networked world. … [I]t doesn’t matter where the laborers are – they might be down the block, they might be in Indonesia – as long as they are connected to the network.

Technological advances in everything from product design software to digital video cameras are breaking down the cost barriers that once separated amateurs from professionals. … The labor isn’t always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees. It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.”

So is it the case that citizen science is about abstract research problems – “are golden finches as common in area X now as they were five years ago?” rather than concrete research questions – “why has the population of golden finches declined over the last five years?”

For me, the main takeaway was our recognition citizen science and “conventional” science is not, and should not try to be, the same thing, and should not have the same goals. The important thing in citizen science is not to focus on the “conventional” scientific out comes of good, methodologically sound and peer-reviewable research – that is, at most, an incidental benefit – but on the relationships between professional academic scientists and non-scientists it creates; and how these can help build a more scientifically literate population. The same should go for the citizen humanities. We can all count bird populations, we can all classify galaxies, we call all transcribe handwritten text, but the most profitable goal for citizen science/humanities is a more collaborative social understanding of why doing so matters.

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