Citizen by Day, Scientist by Night?
The scientific discovery process is being disrupted by an open online community, and they want your help.
Is this a fad, or the future?
This community is called Zooniverse.com and it is a nonprofit that was started in 2007 by the University of Oxford, Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Portsmouth with a mission to “produce projects that use the efforts and ability of volunteers to help scientists and researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them.” The first Zooniverse project was “Galaxy Zoo” which recruited volunteers to identify the shapes of over a million galaxies from images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey . Within 24hr of launch, Galaxy Zoo received ~70,000 classifications per hour and more than 50 million in its first year.  After this success, 32 projects were added including other astronomy based projects like Planet Hunters, projects to classify other things including bugs, serengeti animals, ocean floor fish, and projects for transcribing historical documents such as the “Anti-Slavery Manuscripts.” There are now >1.1 million volunteers globally.  Zooniverse is now run by the Citizen Science Alliance and is funded through federal and private foundation funding from the NSF, NASA, IMLS, NOAA, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a Google Global Impact Award, Microsoft, STFC, the European Union, and the Leverhulme Trust.
Zooniverse.com lists 188 scientific publications from citizen science projects, with the names of top contributors listed as authors on many papers. Some have made significant impacts on the scientific community, notably including the discovery of Tabby’s Star (KIC 8462852) which had an pattern of brightness dips suggesting it was surrounded by an unusually large orbiting object . Joe Cox, et al investigated the extent of resource savings by Zooniverse and found that “Most Zooniverse projects are broadly similar [..] cost savings, with an average across projects of approximately 34 full-time working years saved.” 
Crowdsourcing scientific research participation is not without challenges, and the main challenges one faces when creating such a platform include:
- Training users quickly and making it easy to contribute
- Retaining active users
- Attracting users, researchers, and funding
- Facilitating effective project management
Zooniverse is addressing these challenges, but still has room for improvement. There’s now a smartphone app, which works well for image classification, but could be improved for audio classification as it was found that a “discrepancy in performance among projects might be related to the nature of the subjects that volunteers are asked to classify ([..] both Whale FM and Bat Detective involve the use of audio clips). Those citizen science projects that involve visual tasks might be more likely to succeed compared with those that use other sensory inputs.” 
To improve active user retention, it is important to identify potential highly active users and recognize what motivates them. Corey Jackson, et al found a small number of newcomers are highly active users and often especially active in discussion boards debating classifications and discussing research, even early on, remarking “top performers in peer production communities are born, not made.”  Galaxy Zoo user motivation from interviews have been classified into 12 categories :
These motivations are promoted through the Zooniverse blog which highlights discoveries and contributions that are made. Other forms of promotion include the BBC show The Night Sky, hosted by the Zooniverse founder, Dr. Chris Lintott.
New tools have made it easier to create new projects in Zooniverse, and there are new project guidelines which teach new teams about the commitment they need to make to spending time with heavy users on the forums and how to build an effective contributor community.
Zooniverse should now focus on improving retention and impact. They can organize local meetups and coordinate mentorship between active users and new users who could become active. Gamification can improve retention by giving badges for contribution milestones, persistence, community mentorship, and more. To improve impact in the long run, Zooniverse should expand the involvement of citizens in research beyond data processing to include the whole discovery pipeline of hypothesis generation, data collection, data processing, and data analysis. Zooniverse is already experimenting with not only using human data to train algorithms, but also use ML to prioritize difficult images for analysis, and they could open the ML design to their users to experiment with as well. 
Do you agree with these recommendations? As Zooniverse expands, do you think paying users for their time will dampen the intrinsic drive of new users who are seeking a primarily altruistic outlet, or reduce the quality of data labeling?
 “Exploring the Zooniverse” Michael Banks, Physics World Oct. 2013
 “Defining and Measuring Success in Online Citizen Science: A Case Study of Zooniverse Projects” Joe Cox, et al. Computing in Science & Engineering 17, 28 (2015)
 “Planet Hunters IX. KIC 8462852 – where’s the flux?” T. S. Boyajian, et al. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 457, Issue 4, 21 April 2016, Pages 3988–4004
 “Which Way Did They Go? Newcomer Movement through the Zooniverse” Corey Brian Jackson, CSCW ’16, FEBRUARY 27–MARCH 2, 2016
 “An Exploratory Factor Analysis of Motivations for Participating in Zooniverse, a Collection of Virtual Citizen Science Projects.” Jason Reed, et al. 2013 46th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences
 “Optimizing the Human-Machine Partnership with Zooniverse” Lucy Fortson, et al. Collective Intelligence 2018