Open science citizen science and stuff

This is a post that has been knocking round the back of my brain ever since I ended up paying $16.50 to get a thesis from the University of Queensland.

First, some terminology:

Citizen science

This term is used in two ways. The first one is really just crowdsourcing where individual sign up on a relatively large scale – say to collect sighting of songbirds in spring.

The second is more interesting. Start delving into local nature clubs, field studies groups, astronomy groups, archaeology and local history societies and you rapidly discover that there are a substantial number of people spending quite a lot of their own money, to do something that looks a lot like something that might well get funding in an academic context.

For example, comet tracking. Amateurs have often beaten the professionals to this by using relatively simple equipment, often based around cheap computers such as the Raspberry Pi and off the shelf telescopes and cameras.

These people are often highly knowledgeable in their field and have serious contributions to make. The work is, on the whole, not cutting edge, but solid observational work documenting things – worth that a nineteenth century scientist, many of whom were themselves gentleman amateurs, would recognise as science.

And this second group can be described truly as members of the scientific community.

In my own work cataloguing the contents of Dow’s pharmacy I’ve had a lot of help from both amateurs – eg the Australian expert on Remington typewriters, professionals such as museum staff particularly cataloguing and research staff, and academics with expertise in nineteenth century Australia, and in this we all treat each others as equals and members of a community of interest. While it might not strictly be citizen science, it’s certainly community cataloguing and archiving.

Open science, Open access

The open science movement really started as a means by which academic libraries wished to wrest back control from the oligopoly of academic publishers, who each year demanded more and more for subscriptions to ‘must have’ research journals.

In the open model, researchers pay to publish their results in journals to which access is itself free. They pay because producing these journals, even if online, costs money to defer the costs of refereeing, peer review, the publication process, and keeping the servers running.

When I used to manage academic repositories for a living, I’d estimate the cost of running the servers, the content management, archiving, backup and all the other sordid minutiae of IT at around $200,000 per annum.

Basically that would get you a couple of highly skilled software engineers to work part time on keeping the lights on, upgrading systems, supervision contents ingest, plus a server to run it all on.

Now an academic repository is just a specialist content management system. An online journal is much the same but with editorial and content control, and while I’m no expert that probably adds another $200,000 to your running costs – bottom line people are expensive, and they want pensions, holidays, in some countries health insurance, as well as just being paid.

However, the costs are a lot less than those charged to libraries in aggregate for subscriptions by some of the major publishers.

There is also the case of what to do with research data. Due to a panic over reproducibility there’s an increasing requirement for researchers to deposit their supporting data. Again all you need is a repository and some people to look after it. If you’ve already got an academic repository you can probably capitalise on existing experience, and while you might need to hire an extra person, machines and storage are relatively cheap these days.

But this gives us a couple of problems.

One is kind of a non-problem.

Citizen scientists need access to journals and research publications. Some might even on occasions co-author with an established academic researcher. The simple solution is to let them have access to the contents, both online and physical of academic libraries. Yes, we probably do need a gatekeeper mechanism to keep the numbers manageable, but organisations such as Museums Australia are probably well placed to do this – basically membership of a learned society or a professional body is probably the only criteria required.

The other problem is what to do with these citizen scientists’ data. It’s not a new problem. If you google me hard enough you’ll find me mentioned in a 1988 Linnean Society report as a biological records co-ordinator in mid Wales. (Actually I wasn’t, or rather not any more, I’d moved elsewhere by the time the report came out so no one ever contacted me about the long term custodianship of their data).

However, the problem of what to do with the data is an ongoing problem.

The costs of hosting a repository on Amazon are trivial – for example Dspace costs around 20 cents an hour or a little under US$1800 per annum. Adding a reasonable amount of storage would cost a bit more, but not eyewateringly so.

Hosting is of course not the same as running and maintaining a public repository. Human beings are expensive, and ones that know what they are doing more so.

The costs are probably beyond most learned societies, simply because of the need to employ people to manage the repository solution.

I don’t have an answer to this, except to say that I don’t think charging people for access is the solution …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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