Citizens and scientist co-investigating: opportunities and problems

This new century has brought us the prefix co-. Co-working spaces, to work together, have popped up in every corner of the globe, co-creation initiatives abound in order to create products with users and co-owners share the ownership and use of an object when it is not needed. The 2.0 philosophy has popularized crowdsourcing initiatives, voluntary collective efforts to solve problems together.

This has also reached the world of scientific research. In 1999, the SETI@home project encouraged groups of volunteers to help in the search for signs of extraterrestrial life by sharing the computation time of their personal networked computers. In 2002, engineers at the University of California Berkeley Open Infrastructure created the software Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) that allows any researcher to perform his investigation tasks by using the distributed computing resources of citizens.

In a similar vein were born other projects such as Rosetta@home. The biochemist David Baker, its founder, with other colleagues, adapted BOINC to solve the difficult challenge of understanding how proteins fold. Thousands of volunteers saw on the screen of their computers how advanced calculations tried to find a linear curve in a three-dimensional structure of amino acids to minimize tensions. But people have superior spatial abilities to computers. Soon, volunteers began to write to the scientists proposing better solutions that they have found by their own. This inspired Baker, who with the help of programmers developed FoldIt!, a game where you earn points and compete with other volunteers in helping to devise strategies to fold proteins. FoldIt! remains a success. Not only has it resulted in publications. There are volunteers, like Scott Zaccanelli, who have begun to design new proteins. Some of these proteins have eventually been synthesized in the lab.

Michael Kearns, a computer scientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, believes that we have entered a new era in which people and computers work together to solve great challenges.

Bringing science to the public by sharing the research process

Science is a way of describing the world we live in. It helps us satisfy our curiosity about our environment, and our basic needs. Unfortunately, the origin of the funds needed to do scientific research, the importance of scientific careers and the biased role that science publishing companies are playing, is darwing science, this rational this systematic and methodical knowledge-building enterprise that helps us understand and modify the environment, away from the public.

There are many skeptical scientists who believe that using strategies such as distributed computing they lose control of their research and that i diminishes their own relevance. I, however,  think that any action that supports open science and creates closer ties between people and knowledge is positive. Initiatives such as co-research bring leading edge knowledge to the public. It also illustrates the collective wisdom and the value of individual contributions. Science is by all for all: Co-research. However, I think there are still details to polish in order to have a good working model for this type of collaborations.

Economic models of collaborative processes are a field of scientific research by themselve. The Nobel Prize in Economics Elinor Ostrom has been working on fidning ways to maintain a balanced self ofganinzing forms to manage a common resource, for example: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/284/5412/278.full. You can also find references to these topics in game theory or complex networks.

The difficulties that lie behind collective work

It is easy to be in favour of  collective progress, of the joining efforts and of the sharing of distributed resources. Where do the problems lie? Today, almost two million people worldwide participate in some type of distributed research. They are motivated to belong to a network that advances science. Michael Kearns, a computer scientist of the University of Pennsylvania remarked, however, that the day may come when all these contributions are no longer a novelty and do not seem attractive. Zoran Popovic, a computer scientist behind computer FoldIt!, thinks that if the public is expected to keep contributing to solve protein folding problems, someone should offer to people exciting environments that give some entertainment in return. Therefore, the opposite can also happen, that everyone is so busy co-researching in some project or another that there is no more time left for new initiatives. If this were the case, the system would become saturated.

The problem of the amount of participation is not the only o ne. The balance between the payout of individual effort and the group benefit is also a point where many projects fail. In any collaborative process it is necessary to define very well what is offered to the different parties involved. In this case, scientists and volunteers. The volunteer Scott Zaccanelli, feels he is being paid well enough by being able to contribute to the solution of major problems such as AIDS or cancer. In conrast to these reasons, Michael Kearns, comments the need in the near future, to start paying volunteers. For me, however, what is more worrying is that the work of many individuals may be associate to a single name, that the economic benefits of many sleepless nights of many enthusiasts are accumulated in one single pocket or that an academic affiliation serves to create barriers between scientists and volunteers. Trebor Scholz, of The New School in New York, has spent time studying the perverse relationship between the Internet, games, and exploitation of labor. Could science fall into the abuses of crowdsourcing as it has happened in other environments?

Scientific co-research is an exciting way that is opening up right now and seems that it will continue a long way into the future. Now, if we want citizens and scientists to co-create the science of the XXIth century we will have to ensure that someone guarantees the right balance between effort and return.

Trebor Scholz, professor at The New School in New York, in  his work “The Internet as Playground and Factory” has compiled cases where the use of crowdsourcing is close to the hardest forms of exploitation of unpaid work.

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