BioMed Central on what’s new in citizen science

Posted by Biome on 24th October 2013 - 1 Comment

BioMed Central’s Deputy Editor for Biology and Medicine, Shreeya Nanda, discusses the role of citizen science in scientific and medical research.

Influencing research through public engagement, citizen science allows a broad spectrum of people to contribute to scientific progress. The value of these endeavours can be seen through the resulting research findings; from crowd-computing solutions to genomics problems, as published in a recent Genome Biology study, to designing RNA molecules, highlighted in a BMC Biochemistry Editorial. Not only are the intricacies of specialised scientific problems tackled by citizen science, but also broader issues of public interest that a growing number of people can engage in through technological developments, such as mobile apps.

Example image of cells from Cell Slider. Image source: Cell Slider website

Although the catchphrase ‘citizen science’ is relatively new, the idea behind it can be traced as far back as the early 1900s, with efforts to track bird migratory patterns and populations through initiatives like the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. In more recent times, scientist have harnessed the power of the public not only to collect data on a larger scale than perhaps would otherwise be possible, but also to analyse data gathered by professional researchers. Such data analysis projects include Zooniverse’s Galaxy Zoo and Cell Slider projects, whilst WheelMap, Wide Noise and the Opal Tree Health Survey focus on data collection.

The Wide Noise project, run by Mathias Stevens, involves using a mobile phone app to record the level of noise in an area thereby contributing to a noise map of the world. The app allows one to take a recording of the ambient noise and then classify it (e.g. is it natural or man-made) before sending a report. Similarly, the WheelMap project initiated by Louise Francis also uses an app to map the accessibility of the local area for disabled users, thus helping them to navigate the city with greater ease.

The main aim of the Opal Tree Health Survey, which is one of the largest national citizen science projects, is to get citizens to gather information on trees in their local area, specifically identifying tree species, examining trees for signs of poor health and monitoring for pests and diseases. As the project organiser Eleanor Reast points out in this Q&A: “By having more people out on the ground looking out for pests and diseases the public will be acting as an early warning system helping the authorities spot potentially devastating threats becoming established in this country”.

Unlike the above projects, which involve exploring and mapping local areas, the Zooniverse project enables participants to virtually explore the universe, albeit on a computer screen, with tasks ranging from classifying galaxies via Galaxy Zoo to classifying animals in the Serengeti. The Cell Slider project allows citizen scientists to receive online training in distinguishing cancerous cells from non-cancerous cells, before  trying their hand on real-life cancer data. Zooniverse’s Robert Simpson and Grant Miller explain more about how the project came about and its achievements in this guest blog.

It would only be fair to add that there are limitations to citizen science, for example, it has been suggested that since the participants usually lack training in research protocols, they may inadvertently introduce bias into the data. However, the key here is ‘consensus’ and if citizen scientists are not in agreement about the classification of a galaxy or a cancerous cell, the project runs for longer to collect more data. Also, by getting everyone involved, citizen science brings science down from the ivory tower and makes it accessible to the general population.

Eterna RNA molecule design. Image source: Eterna website

This basic ethos of citizen science, i.e. accessibility, sits well with the Open Access movement. The results of such initiatives can therefore be made available to all, as in the case of Open-Phylo – a freely accessible crowd computing platform that enables scientists to use crowds of gamers to assist in solving multiple sequence alignment problems. Read more about this Genome Biology study in Biome’s research synopsis. Gamers have also helped further our knowledge of the structure of RNA molecules, in particular the role of the primary sequence in determining structure, through the online game Eterna. Tom Rowles, the Executive Editor of BMC Biochemistry, spoke to the top-ranked players and you can read his report here.

The huge public interest in such projects suggests that citizen science is here to stay, and I recommend you pick a project that catches your interest and dive right in.


Open-Phylo: a customizable crowd-computing platform for multiple sequence alignment

Kwak D, Kam A, Becerra D, Zhou Q, Hops A, Zarour E, Kam A, Sarmenta L et al.
Genome Biology 2013, 14:R116

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  • BabyBoomerWriter

    Citizen science offers an active rather than passive involvement with investigative efforts. Engaging people to unravel a puzzle, it increases the enthusiasm for the process of discovery. What amateur wouldn’t turn into an advocate for research after a positive experience online? These projects do more than help researchers sift through enormous bins of data, they introduce curious people to new concepts and strengthen support for future research.