The Unique Opportunities for Citizen Science, and How to Maximize Them

By Sheldon Greaves, Ph.D.
16 April 2018  PDF Version

As the citizen science movement grows, questions persist about what, exactly, citizen science can and should do. Where should practitioners focus their efforts? Where does citizen science stand in relation to their academic counterparts? How can entry-level citizen scientists gain the expertise needed to develop and conduct their own investigations? These are all crucial questions that still lack satisfactory answers.

Citizen Science is currently associated with crowd-sourced data collection or analyzing data, often using a gamified platform. In spite of initial skepticism, data collected by citizen scientists is now a regular part of mainstream scientific research. However, there is a sense both in and out of the field that citizen science can do more. Much more. In 2016, Jason Lloyd stated that:

…citizens can do more for science than just collect data (as important as data collection is). By educating themselves in the research and infusing urgency into the process, citizen scientists can get involved in decisions about what gets researched, how research is conducted, and how results should be used. This pushes the bounds of citizen science in new and contentious ways.[1]

The term “Citizen science” embodies tension; the citizen is concerned with politics and making decisions. The scientist, by contrast, seeks to draw conclusions. These are disparate activities. One can put off a conclusion if there is too much uncertainty. Decisions, especially those related to policy and the public welfare usually have deadlines, and uncertainty is an unavoidable, even significant component. The citizen scientist must work within that tension balancing the quest for intellectual rigor with the need for informed decision-making. This paper will offer some ideas and suggestions for how to shape our community accordingly.  In what follows, I offer the following observations for the future of the endeavor:

  • There are significant areas of inquiry which remain unexplored because the university setting is systemically unsuited to address them.
  • There is a large, untapped body of scientific expertise that citizen science leaders can and should recruit to build organizations.
  • An old, but very effective educational model can provide a vehicle for creating citizen science expertise without competing with universities.

I will consider each of these items in turn.

Areas of Inquiry

University research is governed by two main influences: the availability of funding, and the specializations of those conducting that research. Funding depends on the priorities of those holding the purse-strings. These funders include the government, corporations, private foundations, and so on. Most academic scientists are aware that there is some tension between what scientists would like to study, and the parameters attached to research grants. Sometimes a line of evidence goes unexamined because it runs in a direction counter to what the grant will allow. Other examples include a heavy emphasis on one area at the expense of another, because a professor has secured enough grant money to employ multiple graduate students. These students then go on to expand that particular “school” of thought, even though other approaches worth exploring.

Specializations likewise impose limitations. It can be dangerous for a researcher to step too far off their academic terrain, especially if they encroach on someone else’s turf. Departmental boundaries can also get in the way, although some are more permeable than others. Despite what is often claimed, one of the worst things an academic can say is, “I don’t know.” Competence is the coin of the realm, and there are not many who are willing to risk chasing down a blind alley or drilling a dry well even though, ironically, some of them also turn out to be some of the more productive in their fields.

These two factors, funding and the ranges of disciplines, create a basin of attraction that focuses study and inquiry into a relatively narrow range within a much larger realm of possible investigations, as summarized in the diagram below.[2]

As I have noted elsewhere[3] this chart suggests that there are large areas of inquiry that fall outside the “university context.” The usual avenues of funding miss these areas, as do the dynamics of specialization. The process of peer review is also driven by these forces. Consequently, a paper that diverges into “the wilderness” is unlikely to be printed, not for lack of intellectual merit, but simply because the reviewers and editorial teams aren’t sure what niche to put it in. Should such a paper see the light of print, it will usually sink into obscurity for lack of a community that can give it the attention and discussion it deserves.

Please note that I am not talking about pseudoscience or crank science. I refer to work conducted and written up by competent investigators who usually have advanced degrees and university tenure. And yet their work goes unremarked, unexpanded. Ask most scientists who have spent a few years in their field, and they can cite instance of this phenomena, starting with one or two of their own.

A common critique leveled against citizen science is that it seeks to “compete” with universities. This critique makes an unstated assumption that universities are doing serious work in every field of inquiry that is important or at least interesting. Clearly, this is not the case. The previous discussion suggests that significant areas are being ignored; areas where citizen science can and should move into. I will not attempt to make specific suggestions as to what those areas are. Others more qualified to make such suggestions are the subject of the next section.

Untapped Expertise

An unfortunate result of the “university context” is that some scientists become disillusioned by the process, or they cannot find a venue to practice their chosen field. This represents a significant, untapped pool of expertise that citizen science can and should work to recruit. I have developed several categories (with acknowledged overlap) to describe these people:

  1. The disillusioned professor. These are people who have earned their Ph.D., often achieved tenure, and done professional-quality work, including publications in peer-reviewed journals, and yet their work remained obscure. They have not been able to secure the funding or support needed to pursue their investigations as they wished. Many have left academia or the corporate world, and lack a community of colleagues and students with which to explore and discuss ideas.
  2. Recent graduates with science degrees who cannot find jobs. Failing to find a job in their field, they are employed doing something else. Many of them remain passionate about science, frustrated that they cannot use the tools they worked so hard to acquire.
  3. Those who did not pass the “filter courses.” These would be people who are interested in science, but chose not to go into it professionally because, while they are quite capable of doing good work, they were scared off or failed to pass Differential Equations or similar.
  4. The self-taught hobbyist. The Maker movement is introducing more and more people to the kinds of technology found in many scientific projects. In years past, this category included the so-called “amateur scientist” whose work drew inspiration from publications such as Scientific American’s “The Amateur Scientist” column, the short-lived magazine Science Probe! and other publications. Some of these people are members of local clubs, many work alone.

Each of these groups represent pools of knowledge and expertise that can and should be brought into the citizen science community. Because they are already familiar with the wilderness, they are likely to have ideas for work and study that go beyond traditional bounds. They understand the opportunities to be found there.

In his classic Advice to a Young Scientist, Peter Medawar advised fledgling scientists to study “problems that matter.” Today’s beginning citizen scientist cannot possibly know where to begin, and this can be a problem for those who are just beginning to exercise their interest in science. Citizen science needs more people who know the territory and especially those areas where someone can have a greater expectation of finding something new.

Qualifications and Communities

Proponents and critics of citizen science all agree that the matter of qualifications is an important matter. A growing body of evidence has laid to rest the critique that citizen scientists cannot properly collect and curate data. But the question remains regarding how citizen scientist who wish to do more advanced work acquire the skills to do so. Critics such as Mirowski[4] arguably have a point when they contend that if one wants to do science, then one should go to college and learn how.

Citizen science should not, must not be content to become “junior science” or the neglected stepchild of academic science. Leaving aside the remote possibility that citizen science training could “compete” with that conducted by universities, we ought not try imitate the university too closely, lest we become caught in the university context and subject to its limitations.

A flexible, functional alternative to the university is, ironically, to be found in the medieval communities of scholars that form the roots of the modern university. These communities began as ad hoc collections of students and masters for learning and teaching. The original meaning of the word “university” (Universitas) was not, as is often assumed, to represent a collective of professors covering every subject (Universitas Facultatum), but simply a collective, an aggregate of persons.[5] These early learning communities also took the form of student or master’s guilds, organized much like the craft guilds, with instruction looking much like an apprenticeship.

Pedagogy seldom followed any specific program; apart from the basic teachings of the medieval trivium of grammar (Latin), logic, and rhetoric, the curriculum tended to follow the interests of the masters. Classes were sometimes formal lectures, but also free-wheeling discussions and debates where ideas were plumbed and tested. In the process, the student acquired familiarity with the necessary works, and the intellectual tools to use them.

This comparatively unstructured format continued even until modern times. As late as the end of the Nineteenth century, some of the most prominent universities would hold classes and seminars that were more like discussion groups. There were no grades, no transcripts. When a student was thought to be ready by his professors, he would write a dissertation, defend it, and duly receive a diploma. And yet, what appears so slap-dash to our overly-administrated and hyper-accredited sensibilities still managed to guide and train a lot of first-rate minds.

How might this model apply to citizen science and training citizen scientists?

Imagine a community of citizen scientists, working locally. It consists of a few seasoned scientists who understand the nature of working in the wilderness. Learning takes place as projects proceed, “on the job.” New or inexperienced citizen scientists receive instruction from more experienced on an informal tutorial or mentoring basis. Students who elect to take one of the many free online courses on relevant subjects have local help they can turn to, and a social context that will improve their performance and increase the odds of finishing a course. This would also go a long way towards addressing the persistent and serious problem of retaining participants in citizen science. My own experience as the Chief Academic Officer of an online university showed that retention improves dramatically to the extent that one can replicate the feel of an actual, live, community such as is found at brick-and-mortar schools.

Most importantly, learners are guided along by involvement, to the degree that they are able, with actual scientific discourse. Members of the community who are working on a project for eventual publication share their work with the rest. Some will find the material too advance, but they should be encouraged to pick it up as best they can—remember, no grades! And, there is no time limit, no end of the semester.

Becoming “qualified” is more a matter of slowing down from the usual breathless pace of college instructions, learning to proceed carefully, thoughtfully, and understanding the tools of scientific inquiry, along with their limits. If for whatever reason a member of this community needs to demonstrate competence without having a degree, they can take a page from the artistic community and develop a portfolio of projects or seek written recommendations from mentors and peers. By avoiding the idea of “degrees,” the citizen science community sets itself apart from the more traditional scientific community.

If citizen science looks to unconventional areas of inquiry in the wilderness, it is quite likely that a new brand of scientist is needed with a different intellectual approach. Even with the considerable amount of expected overlap with conventional academic science, there are likely to be some differences. A loose collegium of learners and teachers is the best way to develop these approaches.

Publications by Citizen Scientists

Publishing has always been a significant barrier for non-academic scientists. Those who manage to publish in peer-reviewed literature, however, are usually going to be taken seriously by their academic peers. But this is not a trivial matter. Many publications won’t even look at a submission where the lead author lacks a Ph.D., regardless of the paper’s intellectual excellence. Moreover, as noted above, the constraints of the university context remain.

Many journals also charge exorbitant fees just to review a paper, with no guarantee that it will be published. If it is published, readers without access to a university library database are unlikely to see the article which resides behind an expensive pay wall. Open source journals are a welcome response,  making something of a dent in this problem. But these open source journals have inadvertently prompted the proliferation of counterfeit “academic journals” which claim to be serious, peer-reviewed publications but are little more than scams that prey on authors looking for a venue to publish. Sometimes, even professionals get caught by these bogus outfits.

Other changes in the publishing landscape are the development of sites where individuals can post their own research papers, such as academia.com or zenodo.org. The papers posted to these and similar sites are searchable, particularly if tagged with DOI numbers. These are unique alphanumeric strings assigned and stored by a registry, the International DOI Foundation) to identify content and provide a persistent link to its location on the Internet. This makes it easier to find non-academic publications. A similar tool exists for authors; ORCID[6] is a registry for authors, which provides a unique identifier for researchers and authors. One need not have a degree in order to register. Registration for both DOI and ORCID is free. More services such as Zenodo offer DOI assignments a part of their service.

What may be a workable publication strategy is for a citizen science group to publish “occasional papers,” that is, one-off publications rather than setting up a regular periodical on the academic model. I have noticed this done in other fields, particularly physics and mathematics, where each new publication also forms the focal point for continuing discussions online, and the paper can be updated and revised as a living document. It is likewise possible to develop an arrangement with a database broker such as EBSCO to list and index these publications in their databases, making it easier for others to find and read these publications.

 

Conclusions

The Citizen Science community is faced with some remarkable opportunities, if it can maintain a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, practitioners must carry out good science and research, carefully conducted and published according to the accepted canons of research. At the same time, we must resist the temptation to replicate on a smaller scale the science done in the university, for there is much territory that they are unlikely to explore for systemic reasons. In order to realize both these goals, leaders of the Citizen Science community should develop strategies for identifying, recruiting, and supporting the large number of science practitioners whose work has fallen outside standard categories of research, or have been unable to indulge their passion for science for reasons given above. By tapping this large reservoir of expertise and experience, Citizen Science can leverage its unique advantages to develop new areas of investigation.

[1] Jason Lloyd, “Citizen Science Isn’t Just About Collecting Data”, Slate, 15 August 2016, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/08/citizen_science_isn_t_just_about_collecting_data.html, accessed 12 April 2018.

[2] My thanks to Dr. Dave Bella for the use of this chart.

[3] “The Power and Promise of Citizen Science” Cogito! http://www.guerrillascholar.com/cogito/2017/12/11/power-promise-citizen-science/

[4] Philip Mirowski, “Against Citizen Science” Aeon, https://aeon.co/essays/is-grassroots-citizen-science-a-front-for-big-business

[5] For an extended discussion, see Hastings Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, vol. I (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 1895, pp. 7 ff.

[6] https://orcid.org/


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