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 The great example is NASA Clickworkers (no longer active, but described in articles in American Scientist, Space.com, BBC Tech, and elsewhere) a system that allowed volunteers to do routine analysis of Martian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.