The Power of the Crowd gets Stronger
(January 27th, 2016) In research or elsewhere, every helping hand is welcome. Swedish scientists found, there’s an emerging trend of publications, featuring non-scientific personnel: citizen scientists.
Scientists are very good at producing mountains of information but sometimes they run into the following scenarios: hurray! We produced more information that we can analyse in our lifetimes! Or: yep, we’ll need several lifetimes to make all those measurements in the field. At this point, the citizen scientists step in to save the day. They might not have a PhD but they are willing to crunch the big data. Until recently, the extent of their support to science was not really known. Fortunately, Christopher Kullenberg and Dick Kasperowski, from the University of Gothenburg, looked into 2,568 scientific articles to quantitatively address the question. They found that, although they make up only a small percentage of the total amount of publications, “over the past decade a new and very productive line of Citizen Science based on digital platforms has emerged”. In 2015, for instance, there were over 400 Citizen Science publications, compared to only 231 in 2012.
What is citizen science? It’s a method to perform scientific research by exploiting the great information-processing power of the crowds. A citizen scientist is a normal “man (or woman) on the street”, who volunteers to help professional scientists carry out simple research tasks. As good as it sounds, the method comes with some limitations. First, you´ll never know if, for example, your citizen scientists were drunk at the carnival in Cologne while collecting data, you have to trust them. Second, you have to avoid asking intelligent-designers to collect measurements for your evolutionary biology theories. Citizen scientists might be biased from the start. Third, it has to be simple; most citizen scientists will not be in the mood for performing complex, arduous tasks. Fourth, it doesn’t work if your project is top secret, unless you manage to collect information without the citizens knowing about it… but you had better leave that up to government intelligence! Once you have rounded up your crowd, they will provide a cost-effective input, be it counting birds or measuring local temperatures. This could outweigh any issues with the data quality.
Usually, conservation and ecology are the branches of science that tap into the crowd powerhouse to collect and classify data. But molecular biologists can rely on citizen scientists, too. The quest of Carlos Caldas (Cambridge Research Institute) and collaborators, to better understand cancer, is a good example. The starting point was decades of tissue samples from breast cancer patients. Literally thousands of samples had been accumulated. What to do next? The whole collection was poured onto DNA microarrays, which produced an immense amount of data, for instance, about the regions of chromosomes that have been deleted or repeated in tumour cells. Such genetic alterations might look like a peak in a plot full with pink points. One peak is easy to spot but scientists would have to clone themselves a thousand times to go through all the potential peaks in the data one by one. At this point, 40 hackers were put together for 48 hours in a room with coffee and, at the end of the process, a video game called Genes in Space was born. The game was just a fun interface to get the crowds to actually spot genetic anomalies on DNA microarray data from cancer cells. While the players were mapping routes in “outer space”, the scientists were receiving the valuable information on the genetic differences and similarities of cancer cells.
Citizen science is in the exponential growth phase and, knowing molecular biologists, probably more mountains of data are coming, waiting to be converted into video games. So get all your high through-put data together and call your hackers! Just remember, as Kullenberg and Kasperowski expressed, to explicitly thank the citizen scientists once your work is published.