A recent paper highlights how citizens are playing an ever increasing role in scientific research.
“We see that in particular researchers in the natural sciences have collected and classified data with the help of interested volunteers. In the social sciences, there has been a focus on inviting select parts of the public to find out the effects of science on people’s everyday lives. This may for example concern environment problems and risks,” the authors say.
Research by video gaming
Despite this increasing acceptance however, it is nonetheless perhaps surprising that a paper written by video gamers has recently been accepted for publication in a journal.
The paper was based on the Eterna citizen science game, which asks players to participate in the folding of RNA molecules. The paper highlights how a new set of rules were developed by the players.
The study itself was written by three experienced Eterna players. They syndicated their thoughts into a Google document before then sharing that with researchers at Stanford University, where they were independently tested on the university’s supercomputers.
The paper marks an important evolution in how studies are conducted, as the study was neither guided or collated by expert scientists.
The paper finds that RNA modules that are symmetrical, pleasing to the eye and fold stably are fiendishly difficult to design. Indeed, the more symmetrical, the harder it is to design.
Eterna boasts some 100,000 players, so this kind of insight and analysis is increasingly possible.
Until now, there hasn’t been any rating scale for RNA-design difficulty, and as such, researchers aren’t able to easily assess the challenges involved in designing an RNA structure for diagnostic or therapy.
This can result in significant wasted time and money in creating molecules that are really hard.
In addition to helping researchers, the scale can also help new players find their way in the game. The researchers initially compiled a how-to guide of difficult to design features, before then testing these out on their own computers.
Once this proved fruitful, they scaled things up via the computers at Stanford to fully test their hypothesis on huge data sources.
Interestingly, the analysis found that the best players on Eterna were better able to develop RNA than any of half a dozen algorithms that had been designed specifically for this purpose, thus highlighting the merits of the game for research purposes.
For instance, “the players discovered on their own, and the algorithms independently confirmed, that the more symmetrical a requested structure is, the harder it will be to design,” they say.
Will this be a sign of things to come for other research projects? I suspect that might be pushing things a touch, but it’s certainly a fascinating trend to follow.