Citizen science emerging strong

Thousands of volunteers worldwide are scrutinizing their computer screens, helping with tasks such as classifying animal photos, studying astronomical images, counting sea stars and examining cancer cell images. Though the majority have no technical training, they’re contributing millions of dollars’ worth of research time — and the kind of human judgment computers still can’t provide.

“We are seeing projects that couldn’t be done before, and we are seeing them done on a massive scale and at a fast speed,” said Henry Sauermann, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He’s the lead author of the first study to systematically analyze the trend.

The study’s findings are of significance to the wide range of citizen, or crowd, projects (journalism, funding, forensics) making an impact in the 21st century. Taking them into account will contribute to the success of any given project.

The study found that the majority of volunteers donate relatively little of their time, and most work is typically done by a small fraction of committed volunteers. However, even limited commitment “adds up when thousands of volunteers pitch in,” he said.

There are costs involved in attracting and using this “free” labor. Projects need to be designed so untrained volunteers can meaningfully contribute; infrastructure has to be designed; and projects need to be promoted while community interaction must be ongoing to maintain continued volunteer involvement.

“It’s not like simply outsourcing something,” Sauermann said. “It’s a big-time commitment on the part of the scientists to make these things happen.”

The study finds that the key to attracting and keeping an active citizen force is making volunteers continuously aware that they are helping society. Much of the daily work of citizen science, or crowd journalism for that matter, can seem boring or unimportant, so promoting the ultimate goal is a necessity.

The trend will grow stronger as more creative “citizen scientists” emerge with grand, Wikipedia-scale ideas independent of the university- or industry-driven projects that crowdsource participation currently. 

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