ARCHIVE: Why SciStarter.com is Bad For Citizen Science

Since this post was written, SciStarter have changed their policies and now provide direct links to projects. This is a good thing, and I’m happy to acknowledge it here.

Chris – April 2017

Preface: I’d like to begin by saying that I’ve met Darlene Cavalier at conferences in the past and I’m a big supporter of her efforts. Darlene is truly is a ‘cheerleader’ for citizen science, her enthusiasm is infectious and the citizen science domain is clearly a better place with her. I’m writing here about what I consider the bad practice of SciStarter.com and Science For Citizens LLC, their parent organisation. I have no idea whether the issues highlighted here are because of decisions that she has made.

There was a time not so long ago when you needed a new account for pretty much everything you tried out on the web. Want to upload photos to Flickr? Then signup for a Yahoo! ID. Want a blog? Then give WordPress or Tumblr your details. Feeling social? Then FaceBook, Twitter or MySpace would pretty much want the same information. These days there are a number of solutions that allow you to log in to web-based services using things like your Facebook, Twitter or Google account. Under the hood these solutions typically rely on a couple of protocols such as OAuth and OpenID and often still request your email address when you sign in but the days of hundreds of accounts each with their own password to remember are coming to a close.

In many ways a request by an organision for your email address when signing up for a new service is completely reasonable. In exchange for handing over your email address and a few personal details these tools were often available for free – both parties win. There is of course the discussion around who or what is the product when you use these free services but let’s not go into that here.

Since launching the original Galaxy Zoo back in 2007 we’ve encouraged our volunteer community to register for an account with us, although for the vast majority of our projects (and all of our recent ones) this login/signup is an optional step. For the Zooniverse there are two main reasons for asking you to create an account:

1) When we publish a paper as a result of your efforts we feel extremely strongly about crediting you for your efforts. Experience has taught us that attempting to publish a paper with 170,000 authors on is somewhat frowned upon by the journals but if you take a look at any of the Zooniverse publications you’ll find a link to an authors page such as here, here and here. We can only credit you if you share some personal information with us when you sign up.

2) For our research methods to work well, identifying an individual ‘classifier’ is pretty important. You can read more about this here (the original Galaxy Zoo paper) or here but in order to produce the best results possible we spend lots of time working out who is ‘best’ at a particular task and weighting their contributions accordingly. Being able to reliably identify an individual throughout the lifetime of a project (and even between projects) is most simple when someone has logged in.

Over the past year or so I’ve become increasingly concerned by the behaviour of SciStarter.com – a website that indexes citizen science projects from across the web. The site does a pretty good job of cataloging citizen science projects you can contribute to – when you visit the site and search for example for ‘bats’ the Zooniverse project Bat Detective is listed in the results. Selecting the result takes you to a brief summary of Bat Detective and offers you a link to ‘get started now!’ and this is where it goes wrong: Rather than taking you straight to the Bat Detective site you have to be ‘logged in’. Sign up for what exactly? Am I signing up to take part in Bat Detective? No. You’re actually just signing up for an account with SciStarter.com just so you can get a link to a project that SciStarter.com has nothing to do with.

Additionally, in a recent ‘top 10’ blog post of most successful citizen science projects of 2012, Bat Detective was highlighted. Did the link in this article send you straight to the Bat Detective website? Sadly not, it of course links to SciStarter’s catalogue page about Bat Detective which requires account registration before you can access the URL.

To me this doesn’t seem right and in many ways this is just exploiting people’s lack of experience and understanding of the web. There’s a reason that Facebook.com is in the consistently the most Googled terms – many people just don’t quite understand how the web works and I think SciStarter.com are exploiting this. Conversly, for those who are a little more web savvy these tactics must seem very clumsy. Perhaps more importantly though, it’s widely recognised that signup forms are a barrier to entry for many people and so by having people jump through this hoop SciStarter.com are actually holding potential citizen scientists back.

I don’t believe it’s in anyone’s interest other than Scistarter’s to require you to sign up to follow a link through to a project. By mandating this step they are building an index of individuals interested in other people’s projects when they don’t have any of their own and they’re risking confusing new community volunteers about what they have and haven’t signed up for. All of this is made worse by the fact that SciStarter.com is a division of Science for Citizens LLC – a commercial company.

So my challenge to SciStarter.com is this: If you’re so committed to citizen science then why put up this artificial barrier to contribution? Crawling the internet for people’s emails is one of the less tasteful aspects of the web and one I’d hoped we’d seen the end of. So how about it SciStarter?

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10 thoughts on “ARCHIVE: Why SciStarter.com is Bad For Citizen Science”

  1. Good points, but not sure why you said “Crawling the internet for people’s emails is one of the less tasteful aspects of the web and one I’d hoped we’d seen the end of.” in your concluding paragraph. I think it muddles your message.

  2. I don’t think this muddles the message at all. It is simply bad practice by SciStarter as Arfon states succinctly.

  3. Does SciStarter state – clearly, not in legalese – a) why it wants your email addy, and b) what it does with those addys?

    Do you have the right to opt out of receiving emails from anyone SciStarter sells (or gives, or shares, or whatever other legal weazel words are necessary) your email addy to?

    Have SciStarter’s email policies ever been audited?

  4. Hmm… interesting. I went to their website and checked out their “about” page. It doesn’t give any sense of what kind of organisation they are – no obvious link to an educational, research, or charitable organisation. Support for effort has to come from somewehere, so one has to assume that in some way they hope to monetise citizen science. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but they should be more straightforward about it if this correct.

  5. By chance, I got an email from SciStarter shortly after reading this blog post (I had subscribed, some time ago, after coming across it, somewhere in the Zooniverse I think).

    I unsubscribed. When asked for feedback/comments, I suggested they visit this blog post, and respond to what Arfon wrote …

  6. I was reminded of this today in an email, and wondered if anything had changed. Indeed if you visit Scistarter.com now and decide to try Bat Detective (or any other project) you click on “Get Started Now” and are directed to a page with this text: “Before we say goodbye and send you to this project’s website, please enter a username and email so we can let you know about super cool projects near you in the future.”

    Then in much smaller text below:
    “or, click here to be directed to this project’s website.”

    So that seems like a positive development from Scistarter.

    1. Thanks Karen–I’d never seen that. I’d been being very annoyed by their practice and never made an account. I’d find a project I might be interested in, click for more information, be prompted for a login–and then just google the project name to go the projects site directly.

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