Can citizen scientists keep research honest?

citizen scienceCitizen science is undoubtedly one of the coolest applications of crowdsourcing at the moment.  In my opinion, some of the best uses of the crowd have been via the various game like applications that exist.  The idea is that rather than getting a few people to do a lot, as with traditional crowdsourcing, you get lots of people to do a little.

Researchers from Stanford and Carnegie Mellon believe that a similar approach, with citizen scientists playing games, can improve the scientific rigour of academic papers.  They believe that a game like approach would be more rigorous than the standard approach of a hypothesis being proposed, and then tested through experimentation.

The researchers make their claim in the Trends in Biochemical Sciences journal after the huge success of their own game based citizen science project EteRNA, which I wrote about earlier this year.  The project has provided a huge amount of insight into RNA.

“If you strip away the game part, projects such as EteRNA present a fundamentally new model of remote science that can prevent many common forms of scientific fraud,” they say. “We registered more than 150,000 participants who contributed in excess of 2 million human-hours to EteRNA. That means there were a lot of eyes, a lot of people looking over each other’s shoulders as hypotheses were developed and experimental results evaluated. Everything is out in the open.”

The game asks players to propose RNA designs that meet certain criteria.  The designs are then synthesized in labs at Stanford, with the results then made publicly available for analysis and recombination.  The researchers suggest that this transparency is an inherent factor in the success of the project, and reduces the potential for biases in the science.“It’s not typically acknowledged, but having the same team both develop a hypothesis and test it in the lab creates a conflict of interest—something that may be contributing to a plague of irreproducible results in many research studies,” they say. “EteRNA separates these two important processes without inhibiting the science.”

The EteRNA game has also received a huge number of players, thus giving the project the kind of scale that traditional studies could only dream of.

“A single DNA or RNA sequencing run can generate billions of data points,” they continue. “Following up those experiments with cycles of hypothesis generation and testing is critical to establishing scientific truth. But it can be expensive and time-consuming. It’s tempting to skip the extra work and cherry-pick the data to produce a publishable manuscript.”

Having a large number of people helping with the data analysis therefore is a big boon.  The researchers suggest that whilst the establishment of such a process is neither cheap nor easy, it would probably be something that is nonetheless within the budget of a traditional life sciences project.  Instead, they suggest that the biggest potential barrier to this kind of approach is a perceptual one, with a gamified method not being deemed as sufficiently serious or rigorous for ‘proper’ research.

Hopefully the success of EteRNA will show the way however and herald the start of many more projects of this kind.


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