Crowdsourcing control: Don’t make it a free for all, warn researchers

“Citizen science projects are often designed by actors motivated by very different hopes than to democratise science," researcher warns. © iStock.com / Jirsak

With momentum building for crowdsourcing and funding as a platform for nutrition research, scientists warn that greater control may be needed to safeguard the quality and validity of such studies. 

Speaking exclusively to NutraIngredients, Dr Lorenzo Del Savio, postdoc research fellow at the Schleswig-Holstein University Hospital, said: “Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding can be very valuable for research.

"It can be the only way to make research happen when it would not attract sufficient funding from elsewhere. But attention should be paid to ensuring the scientific validity and social value of the research that is being crowdsourced.” 

The crowdsourcing culture

From entrepreneurs to the UK National Health Service (NHS), it seems everyone is getting involved with crowd sourcing.

The phenomenon has also spread into the realm of scientific research, with the British Gut Project, launched in 2014 at King’s College London, billed the UK’s largest open-source science project to understand the microbial diversity of the human gut. 

In this project and its US counterpart - the American Gut Project - people pay a fee to have their gut microbiome analysed. British Gut Project leader Tim Spector said both projects were contributing to a large-scale data repository for medical researchers, and the results would be published in a peer-reviewed paper. 

When the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric

However, in a paper published last month, a group of academics including Dr Del Savio warned that despite deploying “participatory and democratic language”, the reality of some crowdsourcing projects is that there is little opportunity for “citizen engagement”

“The official ideology of these [crowdsourcing] projects often does not describe what actually happens within the project,” wrote the researchers in the Journal of Science Communication

“CS [citizen science] projects are often designed by actors motivated by very different hopes than to democratise science.

"Hence we should be cautious when assessing the participatory rhetoric of CS promoters, and devise ways to identify cases where the instrumental employment of participatory language could have harmful effects.” 

Safeguards needed

Dr Del Savio said in the case of the British and American Gut Projects, the academic setting of the project has functioned as a safeguard for the quality of the project.

However, alluding to the commercially-motivated uBiome venture, he added that “in other cases, where projects are not run by academics, we may have to devise new systems to ensure a proper balance between the benefits of bold experiments on the one hand, and a rigorous assessment of the risks on the other”. 

Crowdsourcing not necessarily ‘citizen science’

The paper discussed whether crowdsourcing is, in fact, citizen science, with the researchers voicing concerns the citizen science label may be being misapplied. 

“Citizen science has become a sort of buzzword and is employed a bit too loosely in some cases…Not every project that depends on money, labour, or other contributions from lay people should be called ‘citizen science’,” said Dr Del Savio. 

Asked why, on a practical level, such a distinction is important, he replied: “One attractive feature of citizen science projects is that they try to address a democratic deficit that is perceived in contemporary life sciences and elsewhere.

"This is all the more important in an age where an ever wider range of actors, including for-profit companies, are moving to the centre of the stage in biomedicine.” 

In this context, he said creating spaces for citizen science projects where the engagement and participation of citizens is seen to have intrinsic value is very important. 

A catalyst for dialogue

Applying this thinking to the British and American Gut Projects, the researchers argued that despite crowdsourcing being a relatively limited form of citizen participation, it can still “open up spaces for valuable forms of interaction between professional researchers and ‘lay’ people”. 

Looking to the future, Dr Del Savio said there was great potential for application of ‘citizen science’ in the nutrition research space. 

“Citizen participation in nutritional research is always going to be attractive, because the motivation of people to improve their health and wellbeing complements the more traditional ‘engines’ of participation such as general curiosity and desire to take part in valuable, cutting edge research.” 

 

Source: Journal of Science Communication

15 (03) 2016 A03

“Crowdsourcing the Human Gut. Is crowdsourcing also ‘citizen science’?”

Authors: L. Del Savio, B. Prainsack and A. Buyx

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