Citizen Scientists Generate Knowledge from the Long Tail

They are among us. Observing. Experimenting. They may be your friends and neighbors.  They are in the long tail of science.  They are... Citizen-Scientists.

A couple of weeks ago, amateur astronomers charted the once-every-hundred-years-or-so transit of Venus across the face of the Sun.  In anticipation, California software maker Esri created and released a smartphone app that allowed people to capture their observations of the rare event.  The app also uploaded the data to Esri's online map in real time.  From it, they garnered data on observation points and times as well as some really cool photos of the event.

It's a great example of Citizen Science, defined as any kind of scientific research done by non-professional scientists.  The people at Esri are certainly professional software developers, but with their smartphone app, they were able to tap into the motivations and purposes of hobbyist-astronomers everywhere.  The app gave zealous skywatchers a great excuse to have a lot of fun with their hobby and at the same time contribute to the growing body of knowledge about our solar system.

François Grey of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre in Switzerland is leading the charge in advancing web-based scientific research and education.  He is known for his years at CERN, managing IT communications, as well as his "@Home" initiatives (some are mentioned below).  His speaking engagements are riddled with compelling examples of relatively small experiments (as in, thousands, not millions, of computers) with either big results or big potential.  The Folding@Home project, for example, began in an effort to harness the idle processing resources of a large network of graphics processors and Sony Playstation 3 units in advancing protein-folding simulations.  The Folding@Home network operates at outrageous speeds while processing about 7 petaFLOPS of data - and touches the spirit of the gamer in doing so.

"There are a lot of weird and wonderful things you can do with volunteer computing, and you don't have to be a professor with a large grant," says Grey.  Our LillyCOI team recognizes Grey and efforts like these, many of which fall easily under the heading of “the long tail” of scientific discovery.  Growing numbers of non-professional scientists, making excellent use of the internet and the networking of collective intelligence, represent a research paradigm that we anticipate becoming a powerful and permanent force in the scientific landscape.  Part of our mission is to enable these citizen-scientists to be part of clinical  knowledge generation in an Open Clinical Intelligence Network.

But we also understand the skepticism that runs counter to the paradigm.  Mathematician and Bell Labs guru David Weinberger has been criticized for his comments against referring to people who have no formal scientific training or credentials as "scientists.”  But Weinberger admits that this is "what makes it such an exciting time: you don’t need a degree or even training beyond the instructions on a web page, and you can be part of a collective effort that advances science."

We believe that there will always be a need for trained, tenured scientists. It goes without saying that there is no substitute for years of education, mentorship, and critique coupled with documented accomplishments in a field of study. The growing citizen-scientist movement is simply: 1) a credit to the beauty and ubiquity of the true nature of the internet as it was designed, and 2) a testament to the large number of "average citizens" that have brilliant minds, expertise in disparate subjects, and motivation toward scientific progress.