Do projects like Galaxy Zoo increase public interest in open science?

+7 votes
asked Aug 5, 2015 in Open Science by HDE 226868 (320 points)

Galaxy Zoo uses human volunteers across the world to classify galaxies based on data such as images collected from telescope observations. Planet Hunters works similarly, though it is focused on exoplanets.

Ordinary people can do hands-on scientific research with projects like these, which makes science easily accessible to the public.

Have studies shown that projects like these increase public interest in open science? How could such a correlation be determined?

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commented Aug 18, 2015 by Alexander Konovalov (135 points)
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commented Aug 18, 2015 by Michael (140 points)
I can't remember where, but I've read something about the user base of Galaxy Zoo. Most of them were scientists (or scientists-to-be aka students). The general public was not a major participant on that.

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2 Answers

+3 votes
answered Aug 5, 2015 by ArtOfCode (90 points)

To some extent, it depends on their promoters and users. If the organisers of a project like this promote it by advertising on common topic forums and websites, then only those already involved in the topic will know about it. It also depends whether the users are interested enough to promote it to their friends who may not be directly involved in the topic.

There may, however, be other opportunities for the project organisers to get some interest. At a quick look at the Galaxy Zoo website, it seems to me that it could be quite educational. A nicely phrased email to a school or two might persuade them to consider using it in their curriculum, or encourage pupils to contribute. I, for one, wouldn't be able to classify galaxies according to their shape because I don't know what galaxy shapes are called, but it would be a good opportunity to learn.

Another source of public contact is through news and the media. Occasionally, a project like these may make a new discovery, however minor, which can be reported in the news. Traffic stats for the weeks after the report will show increased visits, which means more eyeballs on your work. You can conclude from that, that these public science project do increase public interest when they do something big.

In a bit of searching, I found a paper: "Investigating public science interest and understanding: evidence for the importance of free-choice learning", John H. Falk. This quotation is from the abstract:

A random telephone survey of Los Angeles, California residents found that nearly half (43 percent) of the public's self-reported science understanding derives from leisure time, free-choice learning; science understanding was primarily acquired for reasons related to personal interest, need and/or curiosity

(emphasis mine)

I quote this because it tells me that if people are interested, they'll learn. The relationship there is that if you have someone who thinks astronomy is an interesting topic, and encounters Galaxy Zoo, they'll get into it. In doing so, they'll start telling people about it, and getting others interested.

The conclusion I draw is yes - dependent in part on how the project in question is promoted.

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0 votes
answered Aug 7, 2015 by jaipel (65 points)

While I can't quite piece together details regarding how one might objectively study how citizen science affects a community's relationship with science (i.e., do these projects engage them more?), I believe that examining similar crowdsourced projects could be insightful.

Wikipedia, for instance, has a lot in common with citizen science initiatives in the sense that both citizen science projects and encyclopedic duties are volunteer-driven. The volunteers at Wikipedia write and edit articles for the love of knowledge, but are predominantly a small self-selected lot. To reiterate ArtOfCode's answer, I imagine that in the absence of an active effort spurred by large institutions to engage people (i.e., summer camps or schools deciding to devote an hour or two to having individuals sit in a computer lab and work on a project), citizen science will be dominated by a similarly self-selected, intrinsically-motivated crowd.

However, it would be worthy to note that while the crowd of editors at Wikipedia is comparatively small, the readership of Wikipedia is enormous. Similarly, even if active participants in citizen science were idiosyncratic outliers, the dissemination of the results of the study they assisted with would engage more passive consumers of science as well. To fully account for the effects of citizen science, you'd need to model these kinds of externalities.

These are mere musings on my part right now. If any group knew more about this (in terms of what literature is out there on the topic) than the Citizen Cyberscience Centre, I would be shocked, so I would poke around there a bit to see if they have any insight.

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