Citizen Science Meets the Bookish World #CitSci

Flore médicale décrite, Tome 2

Last week I attended a small lunch presentation on citizen science initiatives. As I’ve said before, I go all giddy over citizen science and crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, etc. Love the stuff! There is so much going on in the citizen science space that I was pretty sure the presenter would be sharing things that were new to me, no matter how much I prowl around there. And I was right! But that wasn’t the most thought-provoking part of the talk.

This was a student group meeting over in the School of Information (what used to be the library school, back in the days I was a grad student here). There was a lot of give and take, with folk sharing their own thoughts, questions, strategies, favored examples, and so forth. Although it didn’t come up at the meeting, there have been a number of initiatives or varying success to try to engage the public in some library activities. Need a bunch of images cataloged? Stuff them in Flickr and see what people call them, then scrape the info back into your catalog. Make a game, and get people interested in tagging them. Same for movies. Or transcribing them. Or translating them. And what about old manuscripts in spidery 17th century handwriting that most people can barely read and which makes no sense at all to optical character recognition programs? Since this was a library-aware group, I wanted to be sure to mention the most library-oriented citizen science project I know of — Ancient Lives from Zooniverse and Oxford University, which recruits the public to help translate ancient papyri.

Zooniverse: Ancient Lives
Ancient Lives:

While the archives geek in the room was enchanted, the presenter was less so. He seemed slightly uncomfortable, and hinted at why. I’m going to try to put this better into words.

Is translating a papyrus truly science?

What is the difference between citizen science, and crowdsourcing for science, and simply crowdsourcing?

The public are being engaged via crowdsourcing in many types of projects, both scientific and others. They perform many different roles:
– citizen as free labor;
– citizen as sensor (data collector);
– citizen as cataloger (creating metadata);
– citizen as lab assistant (intelligent data generation/collation/curation);
– citizen as partner in discovery (taking on the actual scientific roles of questioning, generating hypotheses, designing methodologies, and proposing methods to test hypotheses).

The question is which of these roles actually qualify as “science”? Or rather, when is “citizen science” NOT science? Semantics, I know, but it has impact in many ways — recruiting people to participate in projects, gaining funding for projects, credibility of the outcomes of the projects, and much more. And if you start drawing a line in the sand, saying, “this counts” “this doesn’t”, you start to get back into an elitism that can alienate potential collaborators and end up hurting the whole idea. So let’s assume, for now, simply for the purpose of argument, that having some sort of agreement about what we call citizen science matters.

Another aspect of the semantics of science is that often the special terms used by scientists to mean one thing may mean something very different to the general public. However, when you are talking about science that is performed in collaboration with the public, this problem becomes potentially much more serious. At the same time, the very phrase “citizen science” has rapidly developed a kind of glamour around it, a mystique, a sense of being part of the “in crowd” (albeit on the fringes), of peering from the edges into misty and obscure realms, of contributing to noble and worthy efforts, of partnering with the brightest and the best and thus being one of them, of being SMART. Being able to use the phrase “citizen science” to describe a potential project is kind of sexy, both to funders and potential participants.

My next thought was about hashtags, which have become a kind of collaborative branding tool. There are many different hashtags being used in various online spaces to gather the conversation and resources of citizen science. The one I use most is #CitSci, but I’ve also seen #CitizenScience (kind of long), and #CrowdSci. #CrowdSci is a mess. At one point it was used to mean “crowdsourcing science”, and now it is used more to mean “the science of crowds.” I can see both, but it is confusing.

So, if library types of projects aren’t acceptable as “citizen science”, then what would we call them? If not #CitSci, what? I tossed this question out on Twitter, and got into a conversation with a scientist, Jason Anthony Tetro aka “The Germ Guy.”

Twitter conversation on potential citizen science tags for librarianship

His first thought was along the lines of “Why wouldn’t library science be science?” Good question. I’m not going there. This was a can of worms back when I was in grad school, and I’m sure it still is.

So we brainstormed a few possible hashtags for citizen engagement in the bookish world (be it print books or ebooks or simply anything librarians do, from metadata creation and management, to cataloging, to designing access methods and interfaces, to reference, to preservation, and far far more).


Now I have a few questions for you.

1. Is it necessary and appropriate to divide citizen science efforts (and hashtags) into smaller divisions or special topics?

2. What are other good ideas for citizen science or crowdsourcing in libraries and librarianship and the bookish world?

3. Do we need a separate hashtag for the bookish world and its citizen science and crowdsourcing efforts?

4. If so, what?


One response to “Citizen Science Meets the Bookish World #CitSci

  1. Bryan Getchell proposed this idea on Twitter: “I think for making a new brand something like #librarycit”


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