Posted by & filed under Books, IT & the Internet, Science, February 16 2009.

One of the areas that overlaps my professional life and personal interests is the use of the Internet (and specifically the World Wide Web) for scientific research – and although in my professional life I work closely with academic researchers, I’m also interested in how the web can be used by non-scientists to make a contribution.

I’m currently reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, and this book and the two books I mention in the blog posting ‘Two important books about the power of the Internet‘ sum up pretty neatly the opportunities that the relatively recent development of new web-based tools has given global society and culture, and one part of this that I’m focusing on in this blog posting is scientific research.

One of the (actually not so new) ideas that is very current, is using the web to build a community of individuals who offer differing but significant levels of participation into something that has variously been called a ‘hive-mind’ (a metaphor from biology and science fiction, think mutant bees), ‘collective intelligence‘, or ‘the wisdom of crowds‘. The new tools that enable this are things like wikis, social networking websites like Facebook, user reviewing and rating systems like those found on Amazon and eBay, and not-so-new tools like discusson fora.

Using the web in this collaborative fashion has obvious benefits (and some disadvantages) in the realm of science. Quite apart from research scientists using the web to share and collaborate on the production, analysis and development of conclusions using data from experiments ‘internally’ (a wide-ranging and complex topic in itself), there exists a new potential avenue for scientific research – using the enormous potential of ‘citizen science’.

The concept of ‘citizen science’, which is really only realisable with the web, is something that I believe has the potential to reap tremendous rewards. In astrophysics, Galaxy Zoo shows what can be done (there is a Guardian newspaper article about this here), and other examples from ecology include Discover Life and Garden BirdWatch in the UK. There is a good overview of this idea and a list of such projects on the entry for ‘citizen science’ at Wikipedia here.

One of my own pet interests is the observation of perennial snowfields in the Scottish mountains (see my previous blog posting ‘Summer snowfields in the Cairngorms‘ and others) which has been the subect of some academic research throughout the years (see a list of useful papers on the subject I have collated here), and which has gained prominence in the last decade due to the increasing focus on the Earth’s climate (see a BBC news article about this here). I believe this would be a good candidate for the future creation of a website utilising the concept of ‘citizen science’ and using web-based tools to allow anyone to contribute their findings in the form of digital photographs, GPS measurements, and time, date and size measurements. The SNH Snowbed project and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology are currently doing this research but they don’t to my knowledge as yet include any element of ‘citizen science’.

I’m also interested in GIS tools and mapping on the web, and using a web-based community to build maps is the idea behind OpenStreetMap, and the quality of this resource shows the power that these sorts of communities can bring to bear on creating something of value, bypassing the traditional methods involving business models and large, profit-based organisations or governments. In terms of academic research however, cooperation between existing academic organisations and people outside them is really the only model that will work efficiently.

The very concept of including non-qualified people from outside the academic community in the research process is sure to strike fear into the hearts of many academics – but I truly believe that if this is done in a well thought-out way (as the examples mentioned above have been), then the advantages far outweigh any perceived threat to the ‘quality’ of the resultant science.

The most recently succesful tool for building communities on the web is Facebook (which in my view offers more potential than similar applications like MySpace and Bebo). I have been asked by one researcher why there isn’t a Facebook for scientists and engineers – the nearest I’ve seen is but I don’t think this has reached the ‘tipping-point‘ (another phrase that’s very hot right now thanks to this book) of attracting a critical mass of users in the way that Facebook has so fruitfully. A Facebook equivalent for academia could be a very valuable resource – putting researchers in touch with others in similar fields and providing opportunites to find out what others are doing (i.e. what conferences are being attended, what papers are being published).

Are researchers already using the existing Facebook website for these purposes? I doubt it and have never heard anecdotal evidence to suggest that they are, and this is not really surprising – Facebook has an image of being used by young people to do things like sharing photos of themselves on nights out and other things that are not ‘serious’ – and what academics need is seriousness, i.e. something that people respect, trust and which has the authority offered by the standards set by the academic world (peer-reviewed research, qualifications from certified institutions). Whilst this lack of ‘seriousness’ is certainly true of a lot of what Facebook offers, it has the potential to be so much more. Perhaps a Facebook for academic researchers and scientists will become a reality when something is offered that works the same way but has a more sober face and provenance.

My own experiences of trying to get researchers to embrace these new ideas is that they primarily see this as something that will add to their workload, not make their lives more efficient or productive, so they are reluctant to get involved or to use the web in this fashion as a tool to use for the development of their research. The barrier here is the ‘tipping point’ mentioned above – for these tools to be succesful, they really need to garner a critical mass of contributors – it’s a bit like the phenomenon where people who are invited to a party ask who else is going, to see if there will be anyone interesting there before they commit to coming along – and if everyone asks that question, then the end result is that no-one comes at all. It all comes down to the key concept of incentive.

15 Responses to “The new world of scientific research on the web”

  1. Janet MacDermid (nee Boyle)

    Citizen Science sounds a marvellous idea but I can see why academics may not be so enthusiastic. My feelings are that their years of study (and sacrifice) make them feel that they have become members of a club which has copyright virtually, on ideas and smart thinking. To include others who have not ‘earned the right’ to comment makes them uncomfortable. Heaven forbid that the window cleaner or hospital auxiliary should be more intelligent.
    So I think you are right Eddie, let others have the opportunity to comment. Some original thought would be most welcome.

  2. Eddie

    A related topic to this one is the use of references to Wikipedia articles in scholarly or academic articles – this is frowned upon as Wikipedia completely bypasses all the usual measures of academic quality, like peer reviewing.

  3. Eddie

    In my own small way I am contributing to the idea of Citizen Science – I have been using the Winterhighland forum here to submit details of long-lasting snowpatches I have seen on my walks in the Scottish mountains. This forum is used for the collation of field data (photographs, dates, locations, patch areas & depths etc.) used in a long-term survey of snow cover in Scotland.

  4. Eddie

    The latest findings and collected data on snowpatch survival in the Scottish mountains are published annually in a paper in the Weather journal of the Royal Meteorological Society.

    This year’s paper can be seen here (accessible from subscribed institutions only), and contains an acknowledgement to me for some information I supplied about the survival of a snowpatch on Ben More near Crianlarich in 2009.

  5. Eddie

    I’m currently reading ‘Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age‘, in which Clay Shirky continues the theme of a global collective resource that is now there to be tapped and which bypasses existing economic models – the old established order of producers and consumers has broken down, and I think this will increasingly come to apply to the world of academic research as well, whether scientists like it or not.


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