‘Citizen’ science and ‘real’ science

While the old maxim about all publicity being good publicity isn’t exactly true, it is always a good feeling when one of our projects gets mentioned in the press, and so I was delighted to see the New York Times highlighting everyone’s favourite Voorwerp (and its discoverer) today.

The rest of the article highlights some of the other well known examples of ‘citizen science’, from SETI@home to Fold.it, but also includes some more critical comments. For example, David Weinberger from the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard comments ‘These people are not doing the work of scientists…They are doing the work of scientific instruments.’

From the way the article’s written, it seems that it was supposed to refer to more traditional citizen science projects which involve collecting data, rather than our kind that involves analysis. Without more context, it’s also difficult to know whether this was meant pejoratively, but this sort of criticism – that projects like Galaxy Zoo don’t offer participants the chance to behave as ‘proper’ scientists – comes up a lot, and I think it raises some interesting questions. For starters, before we can answer the question of whether Galaxy Zoo meets such a criteria we need to decide what ‘doing the work of scientists’ is.

I’m well aware that there’s a whole literature on this subject, which I don’t intend to review here, but for the sake of argument let’s say that a ‘proper’ scientist is someone who, informed by a knowledge of existing understanding in a particular field (we hope, anyway), comes up with an idea, and then, through experiment, theory or computer modelling, or increasingly by exploring existing data, seeks to test that idea before reporting the results in a journal or at a conference.

If that’s our model, it’s clear that a random visitor to a Zooniverse project isn’t functioning as a proper scientist. It was the Galaxy Zoo science team who read the literature and realised that sorting galaxies by their shape would be of interest, and who take the results of the ‘experiment’ (in this case, running a citizen science project), interpret them and write them up. If you push the analogy further then, sure, the ‘scientific instrument’ used to investigate galaxy shape includes not only the website, but also the visitors to it.

That seems to confirm the lowly status of the Zooites – no longer citizen scientists, just ‘high-functioning cogs in a distributed machine’ as the article has it. Except that that’s exactly how scientists behave a lot of the time. There may be scientists out there who only think grand thoughts, whose particular genius requires only, in the reverse of Edison’s famous formula, one percent perspiration and ninety-nine percent inspiration.

I’ve never met any of them. When students ask me whether they should do a PhD or not, my answer is likely to be influenced by whether they’ve come to terms with the idea that a lot of the day to day effort of science involves not seeking flashes of inspiration, but hard, repetitive work. It might be sitting in the field waiting for the lesser mongolian tree frog to do something interesting, or it might be attempting to understand why your simulation of star formation just won’t compile, but it’ll be there. Before Galaxy Zoo came along, individual scientists classified the galaxies themselves.

Perhaps they too were just cogs in the scientific machine. But this is now an argument about semantics, rather that status. Galaxy Zoo and projects like it open up part of the scientific process to participation by anyone, and I don’t think the wonder of that idea is diminished by the fact that for most people, most of the time we need professionals for the rest of it.
When I was a kid, I used to count meteors and send it the results of my count to the British Astronomical Association. The wonder at the idea that I could do something that in some tiny way contributed to our knowledge of the Universe was totally unaffected by the realisation that it would be others who analysed the results.

This highlights an important difference between some of the new citizen science projects, and older endeavours such as meteor watching. The Galaxy Zoo site provides enough information for those who are interested to take control of the entire scientific process. Links to professional archives are available for each galaxy, the data set is made available to all (albeit after a delay), and we are building a suite of tools to lower the barriers to this more advanced participation. There are a steady stream of volunteers appearing as authors on Zoo publications because of their contributions, working alongside the science team. The investigations of things like the Galaxy Zoo peas are being driven by prompting from our ever-alert community of volunteers. In testing and refining our projects, successive generations of volunteers are involved in designing future ‘experiments’. I know of several Zooites who have gone back to formal education, inspired to increase their level of scientific knowledge by participation in the project.

In other words, if you need to run your own projects, or to acquire a publication record to be a ‘citizen scientist’, then consider it an aspirational label. The Zooniverse provides everything you need to do that, although, for now, the barriers are still high. Otherwise, if you contribute to our understanding of the Universe in however minor a fashion, then I’ll call you a scientist, and I look forward to being able to drop the distinction between professional and citizen.

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Happy Holidays!

We’ve had a lot of fun with our 2010 Zooniverse Advent Calendar (and hope you now know what Rick Rolling is if you didn’t before). Over the past 24 days we have launched the ninth and tenth Zooniverse projects: the Milky Way Project and Planet Hunters – which are both running along very well. You can find the whole list of Zooniverse projects on our main site. We have also significantly updated Galaxy Zoo, created a host of author posters for your enjoyment and had a bit of fun along the way.

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As well as clicking away on your favourite Zooniverse projects this holiday period, you might also want to look up and catch the International Space Station as flies by. The ISSwave runs from today until New Year’s Eve and is hoping to get as many people as possible out to wave at the people aboard the ISS as it flies overhead. It’s a wonderful project and we hope you’ll try and take part. There is more information about ISSwave and hoe to get involved over on the official site.

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For our UK Zooites, there is a special event in early January that you might want to look out for. On BBC Two from January 3-5th three special Stargazing Live programmes are taking place. Each day will focus on a different aspect of astronomy, covering a different special event in the sky. The Zooniverse are involved and we hope you will be too!

Have a very merry Christmas – or whatever you are doing over the holidays – and we hope you’ll find a Zooniverse project to keep you amused between mince pies.

Planet Hunters

We are pleased to announce the debut of (another!) new Zooniverse project: Planet Hunters! This time we want you to help us find planets around other stars (exoplanets) using data from NASA’s Kepler mission.

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NASA’s Kepler spacecraft is one of the most powerful tools in the hunt for extrasolar planets. The Kepler data set is unprecedented and has incredible photometric precision. Before Kepler, the only star monitored this precisely was our own Sun. The lightcurves reveal subtle variability that has never before been documented. Kepler lightcurves are were made publicly available with the first data release this past June and the next release scheduled for February 2011. We are very excited here at Planet Hunters to get our hands on them!

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The Kepler Team computers are sifting through the data, but we at Planet Hunters are betting that there will be planets which can only be found via the remarkable human ability for pattern recognition. This is a gamble, a bet, if you will, on the ability of humans to beat machines just occasionally. It may be that no new planets are found or that computers have the job down to a fine art. That’s ok. For science to progress sometimes we have to do experiments, and although it may not seem like it at the time negative results are as valuable as positive ones. Most of the lightcurves will be flat, devoid of transit signals but it’s possible that you might be the first to know that a star somewhere out there in the Milky Way has a companion, just as our Sun does.

Fancy giving it a try? If you do, you could be the first to spot an new planet – it may be a Jupiter-size behemoth or even an Earth-sized rock. If you want to take part in our amazing experiment you’ll be playing with cutting-edge web technology. You’ll need one of the most modern browsers around (Safari, Chrome, Firefox or Opera) and you’ll need an up-to-date version if possible. We are testing the limits of citizen science on the web and hope that you’ll come along for the ride. We hope to bring support for older browsers in early 2011.

So, come join our adventure and log on to Planet Hunters now!

350,000 Zooniverse Users

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What an amazing festive present for us at Zooniverse HQ: the Zooniverse has signed up its 350,000th user! That’s a lot of people! There are now more people in the Zooniverse than there are in Iceland (or Belize or nearly the Bahamas)! We soon hope to take on Malta.

350,000 is roughly the amount the world’s population increases in two days! This means that the Zooniverse is big enough to fill nearly 4 Wembley Stadiums and over 8.5 Wrigley Fields! We are now more than twice the size of the world’s largest stadium in North Korea!

On a tactical note, there are now only 12 armies in the world that are larger than the Zooniverse user base (China, USA, India, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Vietnam and Mynamar). That means we can take on any nation in Europe – though not Iceland as they don’t have an army. Irony.

Standing side-by-side the Zooniverse could now fill the Vatican or hand-in-hand we could get half way around Saturn’s moon Mimas. We weigh the same as about 70 fully-loaded 747s and output a combined 42 Megawatts of energy – so we’ve a way to go before we can rival most power stations.

Assuming Santa delivers to 6.5 billion people this Christmas – it will take him just over 7 seconds to deliver to 350,000 people. Imagine how good he’s be at classifying galaxies! If only he had the time…

[Thanks to Creative Commons and Flickr user Tochis for portions of the image used in this post, which itself contains 350,000 pixels. Also: anyone noticed that the 14th is a really big day on the advent calendar?]