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Science + Tech

Citizen Science: The Real Thing?

What does the scientific community think of citizen science projects?

Rubab Abid, Alyssa Ashton and Amar Shah 1 May

Alyssa Ashton, Rubab Abid and Amar Shah, journalism students at the University of Western Ontario, are part of a team producing this Citizen Science series for co-publication by The Tyee and Rabble.

While some citizen scientists are busy counting fireflies and tracking bees, others are conducting their very own drug trials. But whether the project entails simple data or complex biology, one basic question still remains -- is this work really science?

"It is science, it not may have the same rigours, but I don't necessarily see the world in black and white," said Justin McKeown, the co-ordinator of citizen science projects at Parks Canada. "I would tend to look at science as a spectrum and there are higher ends on that spectrum and a lower end."

While citizen science may not be equal to the work done in labs, professionals are working to design projects that still produce valuable scientific data, especially in the field of medical science.

DIYgenomics is just one of the many new citizen science projects that allow everyday people to contribute to health research. The project gives participants the chance to map their own genes and even participate in vitamin B drug trials.

Interactive technologies, like smartphone apps and the Internet, are allowing citizens to get involved in medical research in ways they never could before.

Take Cancer Research UK (CRUK) for example. The research group is launching an interactive app this summer that will give regular citizens access to the organization's genetic data bank. The app is inspired by the success of their computer game 'CellSlider' which allows people to track and analyze cancer cells.

"When members of the public (aka 'citizen scientists') play this game, they'll be analysing this data, and speeding up our research in the process," Dr. Joanna Owens wrote on the charity's blog.

Jessica Richman is the creator of uBiome, a citizen science project that asks volunteers to send in swab samples of their DNA that can be used to track a participants biome profile. She said the growing access to digital technology is the main reason why so many citizens can now participate in research about their own health.

"Just like crowdsourcing has come to very mundane things, I think it's time for it to come to very profound things, like science and medicine and wellness and health," she said.  

Why do we need citizen scientists?

But critics of the citizen science movement argue that scientific research should be left to academics and not put into the hands of amateurs.

"If it's just a lot of volunteers walking the beaches and identifying things here and there without much guidance, then it may not be super rigorous and a little misleading," said Nathalie Hamel of Puget Sound Partnership in Washington State.

But according to researchers, there simply aren't enough trained experts available to analyze the overwhelming amount of data that is out there.

Arthur Trembanis and Justin Walker are project co-ordinators for SubseaObservers, a citizen science project that tracks images of scallops from the ocean floor near the coast of Delaware. Through their research, they have collected nearly 145,000 images of scallops, and with the help of citizen scientists, they have tracked more than 43,000 of those images.

They said crowdsourcing is a useful tool for their project because it allows them to examine their images more efficiently and expand their research in the process.

"In our case, we collect all the data. Where we need the help, is sorting through it," said Walker. "Crowdsourcing, it's such a good tool to do it."  

Paul Lindgreen from Wildlife Sightings, an organization that helps develop and support start-up citizen science projects, agrees.

"No scientist can review all that data, they need citizen scientists," he said. "If they try to fund a study like that themselves, it'll probably cost $20 billion over 20 years. It's inconceivable."

But for Richman of uBiome, citizen science is more than just a few extra hands sifting through data. It's a way for experts and non-experts to combine their skills and contribute to scientific discovery.

"I think the whole structure of how science is done will be flattened," she said. "There are people who have PhDs, who have the tenure track at universities and can apply for grants, and then there's everyone else. There are a lot of smart, educated, thinking people who are not in the tenure track who have a lot to contribute to the world."

How are the projects designed?

While everyday people are actively contributing to scientific discoveries, researchers need to make sure that the data meets academic standards. According to those researchers, the validity of a citizen science program depends on the structure of each project.

"Real science is about applying the scientific method," said Trembanis of SubseaObservers.

For many experts, an effective citizen science project must frame a clear hypothesis and pose a simple question for volunteers to study.

Lindgreen uses the example of turtles in Nova Scotia. There are only six turtle varieties in the province and they're relatively easy to identify, so asking volunteers to count them is a realistic task. On the other hand, expecting inexperienced volunteers to track finches isn't a reasonable goal.

"There's probably a hundred [varieties] that look very similar," he said. "Your accuracy rates are of course going to plummet."

Lindgreen says scientists must recognize the limitations of their volunteers when designing their study.

"It's up to the researcher to put in the work beforehand, the methodology, to produce better end-results," said Lindgreen. "The scope of study is paramount, who you're working with is a part of that and you have to recognize their ability."

Are there ethical standards behind citizen science research?

Whether these projects are dealing with scallops on the ocean floor or finding potential cancer links, ethics is a key component in creating any legitimate citizen science program.

One way to improve the validity of these studies is to make it easier for citizen science projects to be approved by institutional review boards that monitor research involving humans. But certification from these boards can cost thousands of dollars, a process only academic institutions can afford.

Richman said this needs to change.

"If a sort of framework could be set-up for a national institute of health or other academic institutions to make it possible for the public to have a checklist, 'oh we should do that, we should do this,' and to possibly certify projects for a smaller fee," she said. "For $500 you can certify your project, [to say] that you've filled out the checklist, you've done all the things. That might be one way to separate the wheat from the chaff," she added.

For Richman, making citizen science projects more legitimate is essential because the research they're doing is so vital to the future of science.

"This is moving humanity forward, this is learning about the universe and bettering the human condition through curing disease and really important things," she said. "That's the last thing you should be keeping people out of."

Citizen science as an education tool

One of the major benefits of citizen science is that anyone can join in, from a 10-year-old who thinks butterflies are pretty to a retired birdwatcher.

"Everyone can participate, it's non-exclusionary," said Lindgreen. "It typically ends up being nature enthusiasts, amateur scientists that end up participating in these projects."

Although hobbyists, like birdwatchers, may already have some expertise in the area, they still need training before they head out into the field.

"Before you can take part in the activity, you have to go to a two- or three-hour training activity where we're going to go over the background of the problem that we're looking at," said McKeown of Parks Canada.

The projects also give participants an opportunity to explore the world around them through science, a feature particularly important for children.

"Virtually all scientists these days think that anything you can do to get students involved in science, and actually doing hands-on science, is likely to be good," said John Hafernik of ZomBee Watch, a project that asks volunteers to track the behavior of honey bees that have been infected with a parasite. "They're actually finding something, they're not just going through the methods of science, but actually learning and discovering things."

Trembanis from SubseaObservers said he gets excited when his project attracts people who wouldn't be learning about scallops otherwise.

"If we can skim off the people who would otherwise be playing Angry Birds and now they're going to do something that can help contribute to something meaningful, that's great," he said.

Potential problems with citizen science

A major concern for researchers is the fact that many volunteers don't understand the realities of conducting actual science experiments. According to McKeown, researchers must accept the fact that citizen science won't be as accurate as the work done in a lab.

"You never get 100 per cent correctness when you're asking people who don't have the practice to get it right all the time," he said.

At ZomBee Watch, scientists vet all the data to help ensure accuracy. Hafernik said less than one per cent of the data sent to the project is questionable. The most common mistake is misidentifying another insect, such as a wasp, for a honey bee. But he noted that questionable data isn't used until the samples are sent to the lab and verified by researchers.

Of course another challenge is that regular citizens don't always take science as seriously as the professionals. Hafernik said that in the past, ZomBee Watch has received pictures of specimens from a cemetery in Pennsylvania, which is the setting of the zombie classic Night of the Living Dead.

But according to scientists even with all the challenges citizen science projects face in creating legitimate scientific research, the work they do is still incredibly valuable.

"I think the question is not if it's real science, but how people are doing things to learn about the world and how do we structure them into an activity to provide the most value to humanity," Richman said. "To discover things that are important. To move, to cure diseases, to find better forms of energy, to learn more about space. To do all the things that science is supposed to do."  [Tyee]

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