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Giants vs crowds: how does citizen science change the research landscape?

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In the open access week, Milena Dobreva* looks at some participatory approaches facilitating research. How does the renewed interest in citizen science change the traditional academic landscape?

Once upon a time, research was about continuity and the expansion of ideas of the previous generations of scholars. Sir Isaac Newton stated humbly, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants”.

The research landscape of today is one of growing complexity – the big scale of data requires new approaches and methodologies. In addition to this, the information overflow poses great challenges in identifying the research which matters, and it looks like the new mantra is not to identify where those giants’ shoulders one should stand in order to expand the frontiers of knowledge are, but how to bring into the scholarly activities the wisdom of the crowd which hopefully will create “the giant effect”. But are multiple contributions of a small scale more valuable in the modern academic world than deeper breakthroughs done by a few high-calibre scholars?

One example, which illustrates the potential of such engagement of multiple unprofessional researchers, both in the past and nowadays, is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). An appeal to the general public for contributing quotations from selected books which would help to compile new word entries had been published in the newspapers in 1879. This call for help from the newly appointed editor of the dictionary, Sir James Murray, resulted in receiving 3.5 million quotation slips contributed by over 800 volunteers within three years. Currently, the OED is benefitting once again from contributions from the crowd – via the project Sheakespeare’s World which tasks online volunteers with transcribing Shakespeare’s contemporaries’ works written between 1564–1616, and helping to discover words not listed in the OED. This project is a joint initiative of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.,, and the Oxford English Dictionary of Oxford University Press.

What changed during almost 140 years separating these crowdsourcing campaigns? Surely, the communication method (newspaper adverts and letters in 1879, and a designated web environment today). Also, the nature of the task – in 1879 it was a mass-scale gathering of contemporary examples, today it is a more complex, transcribing of historical texts. Amazingly, the mass-scale task and the slower communication channel in the past resulted in a considerably higher number of contributions from the public, whom we would call “citizen scientists” [1] today. The new technology definitely allows for more contributors to take part in tasks: as of September 28th 2016, the users contributed to 81,848 classifications and every week from the project start there were over 2000 users contributing to the work on the project. Whether a more complex task means that a higher number of volunteers contribute but at a slower pace requires more historical data on older uses of citizen science which is hard to find.

There is also a noticeable difference in the popularity of citizen science across disciplines. For example, looking at the various domains of the projects implemented on one of the popular crowdsourcing platforms, CrowdCrafting, shows that uses of the platform in the Humanities and Arts is considerably lower compared to the Sciences (see first image for data from 2014, 2015, and 2016; the disciplines appear according to the classification used on CrowdCrafting).

A further evidence of the popularity of citizen contributions to research activities is the appearance of the domain of Citizen Data Science made in the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies in 2015 while “data science” featured in 2014. Citizen Data Science had been featured as a domain which is expected to reach its plateau in 2-5 years. Unexpectedly, it disappeared from the subsequent hype cycles published in 2016 without a clear reason. However, it is interesting to observe that the Hype cycle reacted to the growing industrial needs in data scientists and was identified as a way to address the growing need for the contributions of unprofessional volunteers who have sufficient level of data skills and analytical thinking.

Fig. 2 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, 2015. Source: Gartner, August 2015


While citizen data science is a narrower subdomain of citizen science, it is interesting to explore citizen science as one of the forms of open science within the wider paradigm of participatory approaches to research. In the time of open access, open data, and open methodologies, the research loses its halo of privilege and can be tried by anyone interested in it. This places tremendous pressure on the evaluation of research, which is complicated by the emergence of new metrics to evaluate its impact and value. This new trend adds to the existing gap between science facts and folk or amateur explanations available across practically all domains of human knowledge. Many mainstream researchers would see a danger in opening up to people who do not understand a domain in depth – but on the other hand there will also be those who would seek ways to involve citizens in projects mostly of a contributory nature – where the contributions are easy to quantify and cross-check. Collaborative or co-created projects involving academics and citizens offer a different strength and depth of the engagement of the wider public in research.

At this point it is rather late to ask if society – and the academic communities – are ready for this change and its challenges. The change is here and the advent of open access has contributed to the expansion of the open culture in academia. We rather need to concentrate on the information literacy and critical thinking skills of those who are not trained to be professional researchers but are keen to contribute their time to tasks which either help the academics, or are modifying the research landscape. And we can also spread awareness of citizen science among academics, encouraging them to experiment but also develop more instruments which will guarantee the quality of the outcomes.

* – Since 2012 Milena Dobreva is an Associate Professor in the University of Malta. Her major research interests are in digital libraries and digital humanities.

1 – Citizen scientists are helping in research tasks on a voluntary basis, not being trained as professional researchers. One popular technique for mass contribution is crowdsourcing which involves multiple contributions to a common goal, which might not be necessarily of an academic nature

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