This is the section in a chapter I co-wrote and edited with friends from the Open Science group of the Open Knowledge Foundation. The chapter is part of the insightful discussion that the Open Forum Academy (OFA) initiated earlier this year, and I am very glad to have been part of it. The chapter, entitled “Bottom-Up Creation of Open Scientific Knowledge”, is part of OFA’s second book, “Thoughts on Open Innovation”. Enjoy the read!
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The rebirth of the citizen scientist
In the recent decade, the term ‘citizen science’ has emerged to define public involvement in genuine research projects. Synonym labels such as ‘crowd-sourced science,’ or ‘networked science’ actually represent a new make-up for an old idea: back in 1982, science theoretician Feyerabend advocated the “democratization of science.” Going more decades backwards in time, Thomas Jefferson used to envision weather stations operated by volunteers as a means for people to be informed and educated thus engaging into self-governance, a dynamics that is currently happening for real.
This Jeffersonian idea illustrates one of the basic and most crucial issues with science as it is currently performed (i.e., through research within official institutions): its isolation. Contrastingly, citizen science operates – by design – free of the constraints inherent to such strongly formalized places. Citizen science thus not only relocates science, but it also fosters its growth in the mainstream of society. Non-professionals join professionals, thus co-creating knowledge that makes science an integral part of our daily lives and shared human culture.
Numerous examples can be quoted, each bringing its unique colour and shape to the picturesque landscape of citizen science: from birdwatchers illustrating how times of nesting shift as a consequence of climate change to disaster management, from mapping roadkill accidents to producing one’s fluorescent yoghurt at home. These projects illustrate a shift in public engagement in science: from citizens being solely data collectors to data analysts, visualisers and generators of new hypotheses. The hacker and DIY movements have widely contributed to the emergence of a true citizen science, i.e. one that fully explores human curiosity in a non-professional context.
Citizen science is in its infancy yet its popularity grows exponentially as the concept is modular enough to reach the humanities and social sciences (HSS), generally overlooked by both professionals from the so-called “hard” sciences, and citizens. HSS are studies of human nature at large. They encounter the same issues as the “hard” sciences: popularization and communication, policy questions, and a wide range of ethical concerns. Additionally and similarly, HSS have particular theoretical traditions, methodological orientations, and critical interests. The recent surge of citizen science, greatly assisted by information and communication technologies, thus allows reconsideration of the somewhat artificial categorizations of science domains and naturally involves trans- and interdisciplinarity in scientific practise.
These considerations indicate that one does not need a ten-person lab, multimillion-dollar grants and caffeine-intoxicated PhDs in order to perform brilliant science. Citizen systems of participation aimed at collective problem-solving bring, however, two crucial questions: Is citizen science capable of producing reliable data? What guarantees do we have that it is ethical science?
Engaging huge numbers of citizens in a research project means that massive input is generated. Indeed, volunteers already collect data for scientific projects: how reliable is this? Two decades ago, the USA introduced an amendment prohibiting volunteer-collected data to be used in the US National Biological Survey. In the case of a community-based bird species diversity survey, the estimated number of birds correlated with the changes in numbers of observers. Such examples contribute to a stigma associated with citizen science data, which is sometimes labelled ‘incompetent’ or ‘biased.’ In a recent piece, John Gollan argues the opposite: “a growing body of literature shows that data collected by citizens are comparable to those of professional scientists.” Although data-integrity issues can occur, Gollan highlights an important message: “it’s just a matter of honing in on those particular issues and addressing them if necessary. This can be through training to improve skill sets or calibrating data where possible.”
The second question that springs to mind when opening scientific practice to non-professionals is ethics. Many have voiced concerns about dubious ethical frameworks in various citizen science projects. The project that caused recent kerfuffle was uBiome, a project to sequence human genome entirely supported through crowdfunding. Indeed, research ethics are not something to play with: thus, every project dealing with human subjects requires the review and approval of an independent committee – generally referred to as Institutional Review Board (IRB) – prior to its start. The uBiome citizen science project was thoroughly criticized for seeking IRB review of their protocols only after the crowdfunding campaign was completed. A similarly strict review framework is de rigueur when a research project involves animal subjects. In a recent piece for Scientific American, professional scientist and citizen science advocate Caren Cooper called for community answers to ethical questions as the boundary between hobby practitioners and citizen scientists is too blurry to be defined, and so are the cases in which participants need to be invited to follow official ethics protocols. As also exemplified by numerous reactions from open and citizen science enthusiasts, IRB approval can be a hurdle for citizen scientists.
Cooper’s call-out to the community of both professional and citizen scientists does echo a widely shared concern: is there someone – and if so, who? – to provide oversight of DIYbio/citizen science practices? By design, both professional and citizen scientists need to urgently address this particular and foundational issue. None of us can continue standing passive when a threat is posed to citizen science. It fosters our common culture of curiosity and bridges gaps between people whose personal aims and leisure-time activities converge on a desire to advance research and improve human welfare and communities.