Alex Wright

Citizen Science

December 28, 2010

Today's Times is running my article on citizen science, exploring the impact of public Web-based participation on scientific research.  This is a big topic, one that was difficult to do justice within the confines of a newspaper article.  Still, it's been interesting to follow the lively discussion in the comments about who should or shouldn't be allowed to claim the mantle of "scientist."  In my view, this is very much an open question, one that will likely to continue to generate debate as more and more people get involved in participatory science projects.

It's worth noting, however, that citizen science has a long heritage predating the Web.  In the US, folks like Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Audubon all made substantial contributions to science without holding formal appointments as quote-unquote scientists.  Many thousands of private citizens have participated in the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count for more than a century; and there are many other examples of collaboration among scientists and civilians.  Professor Patrick McCray of UC-Santa Barbara wrote in to alert me to his book Keep Watching the Skies!, which documents the long collaboration between Moonwatch and professional astronomers.

While researching the piece, I also came across a number of fascinating projects that it simply wasn't possible to cover in one article.  For anyone who's interested in exploring the topic further, here are a few additional pointers:

Science for Citizens
A clearinghouse of citizen science projects maintained by Discover magazine's Darlene Cavalier and science journalist Michael Gold.

World Community Grid
Software that lets Web users dedicated their spare computing cycles to a wide range of grid computing projects, a la SETI@home

Citizen Science Alliance
A consortium of projects including Galaxy Zoo, Moon Zoo, and Solar Stormwatch

There are hundreds of other emerging citizen science projects out there, and undoubtedly many more to come in the years ahead.

Update (12/29):

David Weinberger writes a follow-up post, clarifying some of the nuances of his position regarding whether citizen scientists are performing the work of scientists vs. "scientific instruments."  Meanwhile, Galaxy Zoo's Chris Lintott writes along the same lines, pointing out that many credentialed scientists spend a great deal of their time performing repetitive tasks not so different from the tasks performed by many citizen scientists. They both make strong arguments that the lines between citizens and scientists are only likely to grow more blurry in the years to come. 

Previously: MoMA Apps

Now available for pre-order:

Cataloging the World:
Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age

by Alex Wright

A “shrewd, brisk biography.”
—Kirkus Reviews     

Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages

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“A penetrating and highly entertaining meditation on the information age and its historical roots.”
—Los Angeles Times