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Is Citizen Science the future for researchers?

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When research findings are apparently called into question by leaked emails with opposing views, you can forgive those not involved in academic research for being a bit sceptical. After all how can people presented with the same data come up with findings that are diametrically opposed?

So, can citizen science help, and what might it mean? The idea around open science and citizen science is to have a sensible, grown-up, debate in a public arena and engage everyone in the research process.

It allows those who are not involved on a daily basis with research to hear opposing views and be engaged in the argument rather than being presented with only one view.

The case with the climate change emails in the UK highlights the risks in having a general public too far removed from scientific practice. It becomes hard for scientists to explain what they did and conspiracy theories easily develop. More citizen involvement in science could widen the pool of people who are familiar with scientific practice and so reduce suspicion and create greater transparency.

Like any good argument, there are always two (or more) sides to research data. It is only by opening up and giving access to the original data that scientific literacy can start to be more widespread. Giving people the opportunity to ask questions and making sure that everyone has the chance to contribute to scientific debate will ensure that extreme views are not polarised.

In the US the Citizen Sky project is calling for everyone to help the scientific community find out more about a particular star which has been a mystery to scientists for years. In Australia citizen scientists’ are gathering data on whale sharks, frog calls and birds adding to research which could not normally be done on this scale at one time. And in the UK, the BBC each year calls on every viewer of its TV series ‘Spring Watch’ and ‘Autumn Watch’ to send in information via mobile phones, interactive forms on the internet, email or post about a particular bird or plant. This is all contributing towards building scientific and environmental literacy in the community, as people better understand how research and the data collection process works.

But is giving everyone the opportunity to be a scientist and a researcher where the academic community want its work to go? A recent report commissioned by JISC and carried out by UKOLN at the University of Bath is opening up this discussion and is currently out for consultation on the pros and cons of ‘citizen science’.

The open science report identifies openness, predictive science based on massive data volumes and citizen involvement as being important features of tomorrow’s research practice. It also looks at how researchers can make their methodologies, data and results available on the internet, through transparent working practices, but these approaches might not be for everyone. JISC is working with the academic community internationally to offer solutions to fit the needs of universities as well as  those of the individual researcher and to find models which work for everyone.

In the same way that researchers changed their behaviours from only using printed journals to publishing their work more online through repositories, the new appetite from everyday researchers to access raw data is also raising questions about the dissemination of their work via repositories and open-access journals.

Open science is about harnessing the passion and creativity of different parts of the community, whether that is the scientific researchers who are able to rework original datasets in new ways to solve a problem, or the general public’s enthusiasm in contributing to data collection. In turn, I believe this leads to knowledge being shared and adding value to society. This information can be reused and repurposed in ways that were not necessarily first intended and engaging a whole new generation of everyday researchers.

Neil Jacobs is a programme manager of JISC in the UK