Advancing the science behind citizen science

Citizen science seems to be everywhere. From astrophysics to ground truthing to birdspotting, engaging the public in science produces research impossible for traditional science. Yet it is a relatively new addition to the scientific toolbox. Early adopters know that citizen science yields solid results, but cannot point to a body of research explaining how that happens. Several developments last week highlight the scientific community’s efforts to strengthen the foundation and practice of citizen science.

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Earlier this month the Obama Administration launched a hub for federally-sponsored citizen science projects. CitizenScience.gov provides a project database, a toolkit for for federal projects, and community for developers of citizen science projects. The centralization gives “federal agencies and other interested parties a clear picture of all citizen science and crowdsourcing projects in the public sector.”

The Citizen Science Association website will serve the same purpose for all researchers, federally funded or not. It previewed the first issue of Citizen Science: Theory & Practice the CSA's peer-review journal for the practitioner community.

Galaxy Zoo is one of the longest-lasting online citizen science projects. Its project scientists have started mining the nine-year dataset to better understand how and why its volunteers do what they do. A blog post last week based on an upcoming peer-review paper shows how citizen scientists become more knowledgeable the more they contribute to a project.

Stardust@Home lets citizen scientists search for interstellar dust. In an example of how citizen science technology evolves beyond its original purpose, that system will let the WeCureAlz project's citizen scientists study Alzheimers. Scientists at the University of California Berkeley created Stardust@Home to search for microscopic flecks of interstellar dust particles collected by Nasa’s Stardust mission. Volunteers view animated “focus movies” created as a microscope focuses through the collector. Only humans can spot the tracks left by particles crashing through the collector’s aerogel media. A Cornell University-based coalition of researchers adapted this system to display focus movies taken through a living mouse’s brain. Citizen scientists evaluate the flow of blood to flag areas affected by Alzheimers. (Discover’s Citizen Science Salon has a more detailed description.) Stardust@home’s dusters are helping to refine the interface during the project’s alpha phase. WeCureAlz will launch later this year.