Try it, you might like it

It is the trying, rather than the quitting, that is newsworthy

Margaret Mead, the world-famous anthropologist said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The sentiment rings true for citizen science.

Yet, recent news in the citizen science world has been headlined “Most participants in citizen science projects give up almost immediately.” This was based on a study of participation in seven different projects within the crowdsourcing hub called Zooniverse. Most participants tried a project once, very briefly, and never returned.

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What’s unusual about Zooniverse projects is not the high turnover of quitters. Rather, it’s unusual that even early quitters do some important work. That’s a cleverly designed project. An ethical principle of Zooniverse is to not waste people’s time. The crowdsourcing tasks are pivotal to advancing research. They cannot be accomplished by computer algorithms or machines. They require crowds of people, each chipping in a tiny bit. What is remarkable is that the quitters matter at all.

My grandfather used to cajole me into trying new food when I was a finicky youngster. “How do you know that you don’t like brussels sprouts? Try it, you might like it,” was his mantra. I would try it. I would hate it. Even though I quit brussels sprouts immediately, giving them a taste was important. Now I cook and eat them, and I while I don’t serve them to company, I can talk about how to cook them with other brussels sprout aficionados.

It is the trying, rather than the quitting, that is newsworthy. When I checked the website today, the Zooniverse had over a million participants (1,266,934 to be exact). Even if 73% are quitters (that’s the average quitter rate among the seven projects in the study), that leaves a core of 342,000 strong non-quitters.

What is even more interesting is that a core group of determined and dedicated people are the best citizen scientists. They are invaluable parts of participatory research projects. This is universally common (not only Zooniversely common). We see it spanning other styles of projects.

For example, the online project Foldit, where participants are gamers (or players), the goal is to solve three-dimensional puzzles of protein folding. Foldit encourages players to demonstrate their mental prowess by solving over 30 tutorial puzzles with known answers before they can put their minds to the real puzzles. Most gamers are weeded out before they actually enter Foldit citizen science.

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At the other end of the spectrum are community-based projects. For example, Global Community Monitor assists neighborhood groups in monitoring pollution, often through the use of buckets brigade technology (that is, supplies from Home Depot for DIY monitoring). They recommend a core group of five to do the heavy lifting of the project, such as data collection, organization, and education of neighbors.

In a case that landed Mark Kamholz, Environmental Control Manager for Tonawanda Coke Corporation, with a conviction and one year in prison (currently serving), the core community was only four individuals. It began when these four citizen scientists – Jackie, Adele, Bob, and Tim – sampled the quality of air. These four could not see, but could smell, the pollutants in their Tonawanda, New York neighborhood. I don’t know whether they liked collecting data, but quitting wasn’t an option. Their own health depended on citizen science. Their data caught the attention of Al Carlacci with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. He collected additional samples in order to triangulate on the pollution source. This was only the second time in the United States that a corporate employee was convicted in criminal, rather than civil, court for polluting (11 counts of violating the Clean Air Act, and more), and the first time the conviction resulted in jail time. (Tell me why news stories are focusing on citizen science quitters?)

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Good citizen science design can mean that a core group does most of the work, while everyone benefits. It’s not like The Little Red Hen, where if you don’t help harvest the wheat, then you don’t deserve to get any bread. Participating is open to everyone, but that doesn’t mean everyone has do it. Nevertheless, the results are for everyone. Science, especially citizen science, is to improve society.

An Internet rule of thumb in that only 1% (or less) of users add new content to sites like Wikipedia. Citizen science appears to operate on this dynamic, except instead of a core group adding existing knowledge for the crowd to use, a core group is involved in making new knowledge for the crowd to use.

eBird, where the highest skilled birders contribute most of the data, is a great example, one that I’ve highlighted before. Researchers, managers, and other birdwatchers use the information which is easily accessible and visualized in maps.

“Know your audience” is the golden rule for public speaking and writing. It holds for designing a citizen science project.

Citizen science has a long tradition in the natural history fields because it is easy to tap those with existing hobbies. It is particularly helpful where hobbyists have built communities that foster their individual and collective expertise and skills. Such projects avoid many problems related to data quality and sustained participation. Good project design involves finding a good match with existing participant expertise and interest.

For example, consider distributed computing, which is another style of citizen science, in which participants donate their unused computer resources to computationally intensive research problems. In this case, fandom groups, who tend to be tech savvy, include promising communities of interest. The largest fandom group to contribute to citizen science so far are the Bronies. Bronies are typically young adult males (bros) who are fans of the animated cartoon show, My Little Pony. A herd of about 1,000 Bronies play in Brony@Home, a team frequently near the top of competitions in a suite of distributed computing projects such as Folding@Home, Rosetta@Home, and Wildlife@Home.

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In citizen science, a crowd can be four or a crowd can be hundreds of thousands. A citizen scientist is not a person who will participate in any project. They are individuals – gamers, birders, stargazers, gardeners, weather bugs, hikers, naturalists, and more – with particular interests and motivations.

As my grandfather said, “Try it, you might like it.” It’s fabulous that millions are trying it. Sooner or later, when participants and projects find one another, a good match translates into a job well done.

This is a cross-blog post originally written for PLOS by Caren Cooper: Caren is the Assistant Director of the Biodiversity Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. She is an avian ecologist and relies on citizen science to help communities use birds as indicators of environmental health. She hosts monthly chat sessions about citizen science on Twitter.  Follow her at @CoopSciScoop

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