Tag Archives: citizen science

The Ethics of Citizen Science, A Call for Papers

Here’s an interesting call for papers for citizen scientists by the journal Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

The editors want first person accounts of ethical issues in citizen science. I’ve been part of many discussions of whether QS is part of citizen science. There are some key differences. The most important reason not to think of QS as citizen science is that most QS projects are not designed to contribute to research problems in a scientific discipline. Instead, they are meant to answer one person’s question. The answer may be interesting to science, it may even make a novel contribution, but the disciplinary nature of science, and the non-disciplinary nature of QS, is a distinction too important to ignore. And yet, with all that said, I still think this call for papers is interesting to disseminate.

First: I know that many people who do QS projects face interesting ethical questions, and some of the thinking associated with this work might be interesting in the more institutional context of citizen science. And second: there are an increasing number of QS projects that take place among small groups; while each person has their own reason to participate, the social nature of the projects brings them closer to the kind of group research typically done by citizen scientists. I’m curious about the ethical issues of doing group projects, and I’d like to know how others are handing them. For the Bloodtesters group that I helped organize, we ended up using a process of ethical reflection we called – only somewhat tongue-in-cheek – “self-consent.” What have you done?

The full call for papers is here: Narrative Inquiry in Bioscience


Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics will publish a collection of personal stories from individuals involved in citizen science research. Citizen science is a growing area in which the lay public is involved in research in dynamic and important new ways. This enables new questions to be asked, new methods to be pursued, and new people to contribute, often without the usual oversight provided by institutions and funding agencies. Citizen scientists do environmental research, animal research, human research including clinical trials, identification of photographs, or collect other data.

This movement has implications for traditional science and for human participants in trials run by citizen scientists. Among some of the most challenging and interesting are the ethical implications of this new scientific research.

We want to collect true, personal stories from citizen scientists and those who contribute to citizen science. Please share this invitation and guide sheet with appropriate individuals. In writing your story, please consider one or more of these questions:

  • What does citizen science enable that conventional research approaches do not?
  • What unique challenges have you faced doing citizen science?
  • What ethical issues have you confronted in the conduct of the research?
  • Were you able to use existing frameworks (such as Institutional Review Boards) to resolve them, or did you approach resolving the ethical issues in a new way?
  • What advice would you have for individuals who are considering conducting their first citizen science project?
  • What advice would you have for those who seek to regulate citizen science?
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Seth Roberts on Personal Science

In the IEEE Spectrum, Paul McFedries, the author of Word Spy, writes about new words generated by new kinds of science made possible by cheap computing.

Perhaps the biggest data set of all is the collection of actions, choices, and preferences that each person performs throughout the day, which is called his or her data exhaust. Using such data for scientific purposes is called citizen science. This is noisy data in that most of it is irrelevant or even misleading, but there are ways to cull signal.

That’s not my understanding of what citizen science means. I’ve seen it used when non-scientists (”citizens”) help professional scientists. The Wikipedia definition is

projects or ongoing program of scientific work in which individual volunteers or networks of volunteers, many of whom may have no specific scientific training, perform or manage research-related tasks such as observation, measurement or computation

Bird-watching, for example.

My self-experimentation is not citizen science. I am not doing it to help a professional scientist nor as part of a project. I do it to help myself — in contrast to professional science, which is a job. Almost all self-experimentation by professional scientists and doctors has been done as part of their job.

So let me coin a term that describes what I do: personal science. Science done to help the person doing it.

I believe personal science will grow enormously, for several reasons:

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Making citizen scientists

While talking recently with my QS fellows (thanks Alex, Eri, Seth, and Rajiv) I realized I’ve been using the term “citizen science” rather loosely. Expanding on my short section in Wandering minds, self-tracking, and citizen science, I’d like to use this post to explore how the expression is used, sketch a little vision of where it could go, and get your thoughts on what it means to you.

Current usage: Citizen-as-helper

In looking around the net I’ve found that the general meaning of “citizen science” is that of individuals who help with scientific research by contributing time and resources to projects organized and run by professional scientists. Here’s a how it’s defined at Citizen scientist: Helping scientists help themselves:

Citizen science is a form of organisation design for collaborative scientific research involving scientists and volunteers, for which internet-based modes of participation enable massive virtual collaboration by thousands of members of the public.

Some cool examples include:

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So, you think you can science? The search for the next CitSci study!

Fat-rich Thanksgiving preparations have got me thinking an awful lot about my first citizen science study, Butter Mind, in which participants ate half a stick of butter, the equivalent in coconut oil, or nothing, and then performed a simple math test.

Butter Mind ran from October 23rd to November 12th. Unfortunately, we were unable to determine in this three week period whether butter or coconut oil improved math performance – the “practice effect” was too large.  However, I did find that butter helped me wake up feeling more refreshed!  Now, I’m looking for something to try next… pork belly, perhaps?

For me, Butter Mind was worth it simply to interact with other fun, curious folks. A total of 42 participants and 2 study organizers signed up. We did math, ate butter together (so to speak), and chatted about topics such as Seth Robert’s Shangri-la Diet, food allergies, and what our favorite butter/coconut oil recipes were.  I feel there is a lot more room for people to benefit from sharing lifelogging details.

In that vein, I’ve created a forum on Genomera for ex-Butter Mind participants to share their thoughts and experience self-tracking.  [Genomera is still in beta; if you would like to access the forum, email eri@genomera.com.] I will also be holding a tweet-up in the Bay Area (date tbd) to meet and chat with our local participants.

Now, for the big announcement! Genomera is holding a competition for “Next Citizen Science Study.” (Details after the jump.)  The lucky winner will have their study hosted on the Genomera platform and will receive a 23andMe Complete Edition ($499 value).*

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Wandering minds, self-tracking, and citizen science

522517468_8bd0cf0106_m.jpgA reader over at my blog shared the NYT article Wandering Mind Is a Sign of Unhappiness, which reports on research by Killingsworth and Gilbert showing some surprises about distractedness. (My take: First, the least surprising result may be that the world’s happiest activity is reproduction. Second, almost half of the time we are not focused on what we’re doing, and this makes us unhappier.) The timing of this report is perfect given Ian’s recent Self-Tracking Tools post, where he talks about the Track Your Happiness project that the scientists used, along with supporting mobile apps and tools. The study is well-reported, so I’ll riff on it from two perspectives: How do we combine the results with self-experimentation to be happier? and What are the wider implications for citizen science and an experiment-driven life?

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