Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Amateur scientists and Benkler’s peer production

A while ago I posed the question of whether “historians of science made use of the literature on social networks and open exchange systems– e.g., Woody Powell’s work on networks, Yochai Benkler’s studies of open source, etc.?” In the course of reading Benkler’s “Coase’s Penguin,” a couple thoughts on the subject came to me.

Of course, the notion that nonscientists could contribute to scientific research projects is not new, and in the world of peer-to-peer systems, is definitely old news: just think of projects like SETI@Home, which send pieces of radio astronomy data to desktops for analysis. But with SETI@Home (and Stanford’s protein folding project), the person doesn’t really do anything other than contribute processor cycles: all the actual analysis is done by a piece of software that users download to their computers. What’s more interesting is the question of whether peer-to-peer networks and other tools that facilitate “peer production” (to use Benkler’s term) could help create a new role for amateurs as active contributors to science.

Benkler himself mentions a couple examples of projects that have used untrained volunteer to do basic scientific analysis. The great example is NASA Clickworkers (no longer active, but described in articles in American Scientist, Space.com, BBC Tech, and elsewhere) a system that allowed volunteers to do routine analysis of Martian landscapes. The results were pretty good, and as Benkler put it, showed “how complex professional tasks that required budgeting the full time salaries of a number of highly trained individuals can be reorganized so as to be performed by tens of thousands of volunteers.” (Benkler, “Coase’s Penguin,” 16)

Now, until the early 20th century amateur scientists– meaning people who didn’t have formal training in science, or make a living doing scientific research– were able to make significant contributions to most disciplines, and one of the great narrative threads in the history of science in the 19th century is the emergence of a significant status distinction between amateur and professional scientists. Professionals had access to instruments that were increasingly sophisticated and specialized, and too costly for amateurs; they had resources for analysis and publishing that amateurs didn’t; and they had the training and skills that amateurs could no longer cultivate.

There are a few specialties in which amateurs still dominate: most asteroids and comets are discovered by amateurs, and amateurs can also do reputable work in variable star astronomy. But they can do so precisely because these are specialties in which you don’t need big telescopes (or they’re within the economic reach of a very dedicated amateur who’s willing to invest heavily in her hobby); in which you could build systems for quickly alerting professionals of your discovery; and in which the observational skills are not as demanding as they are for, say, quasar research (in a formal sense at least– it still takes very sharp eyes to see an asteroid, or even to see the trail on a photograph).

Here’s the question: Will advances in smart dust, cheap sensors, lab on a chip, ubiquitous wireless, etc., bring the cost of certain kinds of instruments down enough to make it possible for amateurs to conduct research in areas that today they cannot? Would it be possible to develop other kinds of massive data analysis projects in which data can be analyzed by people with little formal training and time– projects that, as Benkler put it, aggregate and “mobilize a vast pool of five-minute increments of human judgment”? (16) Will new technologies make it possible for amateurs to reliably make certain kinds of tricky observations that they cannot today?

My instinct is to say “Yes,” and to say that the first areas you’d see these new niches for amateur scientists will be in the field sciences (field zoology, geology, geography), and in areas that can mobilize considerable public support or sympathy (cancer research, global warming, ecology). But I’m keen to hear other thoughts on the subject.

4 Comments

  1. Amateur participation in science has been with us for a long time. The tools for performing the experiments/observations, disseminating instructions and communicating between scientists and amateurs are changing, but I suspect that that will only bring about incremental rather than radical change.

    Tool evolution will make new kinds of work possible, but that was also the case for an amateur astronomer in the 1930’s using new photographic technologies on the newly invented Schmidt telescope or Herr Herschel in the 1770’s using large reflectors. So we will have new kinds of observations, but not necessarily a change in the relative relations between amateurs and professionals.

    The web is perhaps more of a radical change than improvements in detector technologies, nanotech &c.

    I’m working on a draft of a paper where I look at am-pro interaction through distributed computing from the perspective of the scientists’ use of such systems for getting public acceptance and cultural capital. The research policy effects of distributed computing, if you like. (Perhaps we could do something together on this?)

    Seti@Home is not only a system for donating processor cycles to radio astronomers, it is also a way of making PR for astronomy in general and for bioastronomy in particular. Bioastronomy has, as is well known, had problems from Proxmire and onwards. Some astronomers – a minority I suppose, but still – seem to think it is not science proper (others think it is Real Science ™, since it has a commission in the IAU, journals and so on). The public has a big interest in bioastronomy. Seti@Home is thus a way for a scientific subculture to bolster its position.

    So, as you so rightly observe, these webbased am-pro collaborations will be successes and draw large crowds if they are in fields where there is large public support and sympathy. The distributed computing projects amplifies and articulates this public support and thus leads to research policy effects. Kind of like what happens when a subdiscipline is succesfull in popular science or getting good media coverage, which can have positive effects for that field’s success in funding and so on.

  2. I think you’re right that we shouldn’t expect a technology-fueled “change in the relative relations between amateurs and professionals;” what I expect is that certain new niches will open up for amateurs to contribute to the scientific enterprise.

    The other, related thing to watch is the ability of people with forms of experience and knowledge that aren’t “scientific” or formal, but which capture insights about the natural world, to translate some of that knowledge into scientifically-useful data (I’m thinking of Cybertracker here).

  3. you lier lier pants on fire

  4. Amateur science is close to being dead. It has been dealt mortal wounds by the paid science establishment, which has economic self-interest ( as in tenure) at it’s core.
    Certain scientific areas are more closed than others. I happen to have an interest in biosci which is among the worst of the worst. This is because , in biosci, the splitters have run rampant over the lumpers. The proliferation of ever more specific journals encourages the examination of tinier parts of topics. This makes it increasingly difficult to synthesize ideas which explain many different things together.
    Darwin synthesized observations in many different areas to arive at his unified theories of Natural and Sexual Selection.
    Today there is the common comment that certain processes are “too complicated” to answer with uncomplicated explanations.
    I have no answers for this problem since it is driven by the drive for recognition by the other frogs in the small ponds.
    Of particular harm is the tendency to see any exception as negating patterns. It reminds me of the criticism of Greek rhetoric by Rome. The Greek was seen as capable as “proving” both for and against any issue, based on the manipulation of language.
    Which leaves Truth out in the scientific cold.
    Suggestions?

    Arne

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