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Researchers must harness powers of web and citizen science, experts say

As the web and web-based apps become more and more sophisticated, the role played by citizen science is growing in scope and size. And as the scientific process slowly evolves, citizen involvement - especially in scientific endeavours that require large data sets - will become a cornerstone of research, experts say.

Speaking at a session at the Mozilla Festival, a panel - including scientists, researchers and developers and moderated by Mozilla Foundation director Mark Surman - pointed to more citizen and volunteer involvement in scientific research as an inevitability in the future. And in addition to helping professional scientists collect, analyse, and add context to data, the prospect of ‘Citizen Science 2.0’ can play an important role in education, they said.

A nuanced integration of the web and citizen and professional science can be a boon in helping scientists “stitch together research in a more holistic way,” said Joshua Greenberg, director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Digital Information Technology program. It can also drive innovation, albeit on a smaller scale, Greenberg said.

Moreover, citizen scientists frequently fill gaps that professional scientists overlook. Francois Grey, lead developer at CERN’s Citizen Cyberscience Centre, pointed to PrimeGrid, an initiative launched by a hobbyist that, since its founding, has amassed the largest collection of prime numbers in the world. While many in the professional pursuit of science may not have had the time, or interest, to take on such a project, mathematicians and scientists are constantly requesting use of PrimeGrid’s database of numbers, Grey said.

Daniel Lombraña González, coordinator of the CERN Citizen Cyberscience Centre, agreed. González used the ForestWatchers project as an example. In that particular initiative, volunteers with an interest in conservationism monitor certain patches of forest across the world via freely available high-resolution imagery of the Earth; they easily participate in the process of computing by using devices as ubiquitous as laptops, tablets, and smartphones, González said.

“You need humans validating data,” he said, stressing the importance of engaging human volunteers, and not relying on automated technology and computing. “There is some knowledge that is impossible to put into algorithms.”

Accordingly, increasingly complementary techniques are the way forward, bringing citizens and professional scientists together to collaborate by using the powers of the web, the panel said.

“This is how we’re going to be doing science increasingly in certain areas,” said Greenberg.

But despite the enthusiasm from both citizen scientists and professional scientists, there are still barriers to be overcome. First, the boundaries between amateur and professional science need to gradually be cut down, with both audience and panel members acknowledging that there is a lot of cynicism in the professional scientific community about the implications of the growth of citizen science. However, that obstacle can be addressed by emphasising transparency and validation techniques, both of which can make crowd-sourcing infinitely more reliable.

Second, the professional scientific community must be prepared to give back to the volunteers and citizen scientists who are increasingly powering their research. Scientists often “exploit” their volunteers, acknowledged Grey of CERN, who suggested that the reliance on volunteer-driven data should be counterbalanced by the development of a structured method to add value to the process for volunteers who are freely giving up their time.

Using innovation to educate, for instance, would be one way to engage volunteers more fully, suggested Grey – a theme that has been repeated throughout Mozilla Festival.

Image Credit: Flickr (FailedImitator)