Is citizen science a throwback?

The rise of ‘citizen science’ seems meteoric, making headlines across countries and disciplines as a modern revolution for science. But is it truly a revolution — and is it even new?

 
 Illustration by Ben Coy

Illustration by Ben Coy

 

Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions covers science prior to 1962, but what about later transformations in science? In this column, we look at what might be considered modern scientific revolutions (here's our 101 on what makes a revolution). This month, Sam Vilkins investigates the claim that citizen science is a modern day scientific revolution.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) released a radiowave-searching screensaver called SETI@home to the public in May 1999, allowing volunteers to offer their home computing power to the search for alien life. It was a small, downloadable program that ran itself, only connecting to the internet every few days to grab new data from the Californian server.

While there had been previous projects of a similar kind, with networks of idle computers crunching data, nothing quite captured the imagination like SETI@home. In the first week, 298,000 computers signed up and clocked up over 9.5 million hours of data analysis. By 2001, there were over 3 million participants. At the time, project scientist Dan Werthimer described it to Sean McMans as “by far the world’s largest supercomputer”.

SETI@home and its pioneering distributive computing set the stage for an explosion in what has come to be known as citizen science projects, where ‘ordinary’ citizens — non-scientists — can collect data, spot patterns, and even organise entire projects themselves. They run the gamut from spotting local wildlife to SETI’s modern reincarnations, mapping out the night sky to discover new worlds.

  The SETI@home screensaver, released in May 1999.  SETI@home/NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (GNU Lesser General Public License)

The SETI@home screensaver, released in May 1999. SETI@home/NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (GNU Lesser General Public License)

This flood of modern citizen science projects has been hailed as revolutionary — with local councils, federal departments, NASA and celebrity scientists all endorsing specific projects as well as the general benefits.

It’s been pushed as the best way to both vastly improve the range and depth of scientific data available and to engage 'normal' people in the process of scientific discovery.

The BBC, discussing the 10th anniversary of the citizen science project Galaxy Zoo in 2017, said it had “changed the way science is done”.

But amateur scientists have existed long before the ivory towers of big science, and volunteer-collected data has a long history in scientific endeavour. Globalisation and innovations in computing have greatly expanded the effectiveness of these projects, and perhaps they could be colloquially called revolutionary. Considering citizen science a scientific revolution is simplistic, and erases much of its long and complex history.

Citizen discoverers and citizen computers

There are a few interwoven strands to ‘citizen science’, further confused by the different terms used. Some prefer 'community science', to avoid implications about who may or may not be allowed to participate, and there are even multiple concepts under the umbrella term 'citizen science', most involving democratic values in science.

Here, we are looking only at 'citizen scientists' as non-specialists volunteering to collect and analyse data for scientific enquiry. Within this are two major tropes: citizens as discoverers and citizens as computers — those who gather and analyse data without necessarily making discoveries themselves.

When you zoom out, stressing the novelty of citizens as discoverers seems strange. Many of the most influential scientists in our canon weren’t academic specialists in their time. Some of science’s most famous names were drop-outs, self-trained, or barely trained at all.

  The self-funded scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries were called “gentlemen scientists”, such as Michael Faraday  —  shown above giving the British Royal Institution’s Christmas Lecture for Juveniles in 1856  —  who had no formal training before becoming a full Professor of Chemistry.  Alexander Blaikley/ London Illustrated News  (public domain)

The self-funded scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries were called “gentlemen scientists”, such as Michael Faraday — shown above giving the British Royal Institution’s Christmas Lecture for Juveniles in 1856 who had no formal training before becoming a full Professor of Chemistry. Alexander Blaikley/London Illustrated News (public domain)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, these were mostly men of the idle rich, who came to be known as gentlemen scientists.

Michael Faraday, for example, made great contributions to the field of electromagnetism and electrochemistry, but he only received a very basic formal education. He taught himself by reading scientific books and attending public lectures while working for a bookbinder in his teenage years. He then landed himself a job as a chemistry assistant, and individually published his work on chemical compositions and electromagnetic motors before working his way to being the first Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution.

Many of the founding members and early fellows of London’s Royal Society were also self-funded inquirers, with no formal tertiary training or academic positions.

That's not to say that anyone could be a scientist in the 1700s, but we can see the border between the academic and the citizen was once a blurrier one.

There are also historical examples of citizens as computers — mostly gathering or sorting data — though their aims seem less ambitious than what we are familiar with today.

One of the oldest citizen science projects is the North American Bird Phenology Program, which ran from 1881 to 1970. American ornithologist Wells Woodbridge Cooke gathered a team of observers across North America to record the movements of local birds. At its peak, the network consisted of 3000 volunteers.

A similar long-running project, the Christmas Bird Count, was started by ornithologist Frank Chapman in 1900. From 27 observers in its first year, the count has fledged to include tens of thousands of participants in the present day. The basic count data is aggregated, and published for the use of local and global scientists and policymakers working to understand bird migration patterns. To date, over 200 peer-reviewed articles have resulted from the Christmas Bird Count data. Of course, none list all the volunteers as co-authors.

Big Science

  A Le Conte's Sparrow (Ammodramus leconteii), identified in Marin County, California during the 2014 Christmas Bird Count, which has been running since 1900 .  K Schneider/  Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A Le Conte's Sparrow (Ammodramus leconteii), identified in Marin County, California during the 2014 Christmas Bird Count, which has been running since 1900. K Schneider/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In the boom after World War II, there was a shift from individual, 'gentlemanly science' of the past, to big science — international projects with bigger budgets and fewer borders.

The focus of citizen science projects seems to have shifted alongside this growth — as massive multiplayer experiments are promoted all across the globe.

Take the Galaxy Zoo project, which asks citizen scientists to classify galaxies from telescope images. Since its launch in 2007, over 125 million galaxies have been classified.

And things are only speeding up — the 2017 SkyMapper project, during the broadcast of the BBC’s Stargazing Live, hit four million classifications in only three days.

Dr Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist working with the SkyMapper Telescope at the Australian National University, was blown away by the success of citizen involvement in their work .

“It was much faster than we could have anticipated,” he said.

“Amateur astronomers have been using small telescopes to find nearby supernova for decades, but I think the way citizens can actively analyse, collect, and assist with large amounts of data is new,” said Dr Tucker.

Surprisingly, involving the citizen scientists changed the way the researchers presented their data, with the input of the citizen scientists leading to “more efficient ways for us to do it naturally”.

This, at least, backs up a lot of the promises made by funding announcements — opening new avenues for citizens to be involved with scientific projects that can engage the public and make the scientists more efficient.

  One focus of the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project is in how galaxies rotate — as in this Hubble Space Telescope image of the Messier 101 galaxy in its normal orientation and reversed. The project has so far made over 125 million classifications.  European Space Agency & NASA/ Wikimedia  (CC BY 3.0)

One focus of the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project is in how galaxies rotate — as in this Hubble Space Telescope image of the Messier 101 galaxy in its normal orientation and reversed. The project has so far made over 125 million classifications. European Space Agency & NASA/Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

But as citizens and scientists alike enjoy a time of collaborative, productive endeavour, it is still clear where the lines of expertise are drawn. It’s practically impossible to publish in scientific journals without academic affiliation, and results published elsewhere are not quickly trusted.

While some projects are fully run by citizens, they are mostly local environmental causes, with little broader academic impact.

In Dr Tucker’s view, there’s a limit to the extent of citizen-led work that can be done, but it changes by discipline.

“I think having trained scientists even as a quality control is necessary,” he said.

So is citizen science really a scientific revolution?

In Paradigm 101, we set out that in true paradigm shifts, people give up their fundamental assumptions in favour of new ones. What new assumptions are in place here? Specialists with years of training and likely privileged circumstances still lead scientific projects and have a vast monopoly on publishing scientific discoveries. Citizens and non-specialists still gather and contribute data — but this is hardly an innovation.

Revolutions in science are usually preceded by revolutions in measurement. While these large-scale participatory projects may seem like a change in measurement, the actual measuring is not new – just the speed and distribution of it.

So while we can count more birds and classify more galaxies faster than ever before, without a new invention or tipping point at the centre of citizen science, it will remain a delightful hobby, not a paradigm shift. 

Edited by Diana Crow and Tessa Evans