Open Science and Citizen Science – a distinction

As posted to Billion Brain Blog by Francois Grey on July 3rd 2011

In the last two weeks, I’ve been at two events where the notion of Open Science featured prominently. One was the Open Access Initiative Workshop in Geneva 22-24 June, the other the Open Knowledge Conference in Berlin, 30 June – 1 July.

Now, I’m all for openness. But as I said when introducing a Panel Session on Open Science in Berlin, I’m not interested in openness as an end in itself, but rather as a means to an end. And if that wasn’t provocative enough (the statement drew a few boos and snickers from the crowd) I added that I’m not interested in science as an end in itself, but also as a means to an end.

Open in another way

My provocation was deliberate. Citizen cyberscience is sometimes labelled as a form of Open Science. But after hearing a number of people from the worlds of Open Access, Open Source, Open Data and Open Standards talk about Open Science, I think there’s an important distinction to be made.

As I understand it, Open Science is focused on ensuring the free flow of information that scientists generate, primarily (though not exclusively) for the benefit of other scientists. Open Access journals and Open Data policies help achieve this goal. Open Science takes this idea several steps further, encouraging new standards of attribution that would make the use of Web 2.0 technologies more attractive to the scientific community, weaning it off the classic ‘publish or perish’ mentality that places inordinate value on scientific papers and the citations they garner. Cameron Neylon – who was at both the Geneva and Berlin events – is an excellent spokesperson for this new trend.

This sort of Open is great, of course. But it is very different from the sort of openness that I feel is central to citizen cyberscience. This is the openness to people outside the scientific community, people who are not professional scientists, and therefore are not driven by the same incentives that push scientists to publish, or go to conferences or write grant proposals. By creating the possibility for millions more amateurs to participate actively in online scientific projects, citizen cyberscience opens up science in a potentially far more radical way. Because ultimately, this sort of openness puts into question the very notion of a boundary between professional and amateur science.

To be fair, long before the Internet and the Web, citizen science has been challenging the amateur/professional boundary in fields like astronomy and archaeology. The only difference now – the “cyber” part of the story – is that the Web greatly broadens the scope of what fields of science amateurs can contribute to. This is a very different kind of openness. It is about making the scientific process itself open to broader participation, rather than focusing on the openness of the outcomes of that process, such as publications, data and source code.

The wonder of science

The reason to make the scientific process more open, in my own very personal view, is ultimately not about practical outcomes like papers, not even about using resources more efficiently or ensuring better public understanding and support for science. Those may be good reasons for citizen cyberscience from a scientist’s perspective, perhaps even from the perspective of society as a whole. But what I feel is the overriding argument for citizen cyberscience is its ability to share the wonder of scientific discovery more widely, as something people with an interest in the world around them can partake in.

I emphasize the word wonder here, because I believe that ultimately science is a passion, not a profession. Yearning to know about the world, about how it works, is something that just about every child shares. It is a passion which, sadly, is often beaten out of us by boring science teachers or dogmatic parents. A passion that scientific experts, fenced in behind their technical jargon, often fail to kindle amongst the wider public. Even the many excellent popular books on science can make it seem like the best a non-professional can hope for is the vicarious pleasure of reading about the breakthroughs of brilliant researchers, suitably dumbed down for mass consumption.

Citizen Cyberscience challenges all this, making science not just accessible but participatory. And that – for at least some citizen cyberscientists – can change everything. Last year at theLondon Citizen Cyberscience Summit, in a panel session with a number of passionate volunteers, one of them confessed that her parents had discouraged her from studying science at University, as they felt it was not a career for women. Years later, when she stumbled upon the project GalaxyZoo, it rekindled her youthful enthusiasm for science. Now, as well as participating in citizen cyberscience projects, she is taking science courses with the Open University.

While not everybody may take their passion for science that far, this story illustrates to me why citizen cyberscience is about another kind of openness than the variety that fuels the Open Science movement. Indeed, many excellent citizen cyberscience projects, like GalaxyZoo, are not even Open Source, and many of the results of volunteer computing projects like are published in journals like Nature that do not subscribe to an Open Access policy.

So while I’m all for openness, I’m not particularly worried by the fact that some citizen cyberscience projects produce results – code, data and publications – that are not open. It would be better if they did. But as I said in Berlin, I’m not interested in openness as an end in itself. And it is important to realize that openness is not synonymous with quality or relevance. Scientists can make their articles, code and data as open as they like, and yet still fail to interest anyone outside a very small circle of experts. The openness I’m interested is one that opens science to much wider participation.

And as I also said in Berlin, I’m not interested in science as an end in itself, but in the ability of science – via Web-based participation – to elicit a sense of wonder about the universe we live in. And to do so amongst a much wider population than just those fortunate enough to count science as their profession.

In short, Open Science is about making sure there are no locks on the doors to science. Citizen cyberscience is about making sure as many people as possible walk through those doors.