Crowd-sourcing scientific research

Got a computer? Help map space

“Contribute to real science by helping classify galaxies with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s Galaxy Zoo.”

In March, a world record was set for the most explosive man-made collision between two particles (3.5 TeV for all you physicists). Such experiments, conducted at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, are expected to yield valuable insights into the early moments of our Universe.

The LHC has heralded some other firsts, namely the first paper authored by over 1000 people. The paper represents a new way of conducting science that allows for unprecedented, rapid collaboration.

The practice of allowing crowds of people to perform a task, instead of one highly qualified individual, is well-documented in such books as The Wisdom of Crowds and Wikinomics. The Firefox browser, the Linux operating system, Wikipedia and the Apache web server are examples of open-source products created for free by a pool of eager contributors.

In a sense, the process of scientific research has always been open-source, with results published for peer-review by the community. Colleagues test and refine theories and give them back up to the crowd. But new technologies are allowing science to proceed in a much more collaborative way. The LHC hosts scientists from 111 different countries.

The Human Genome Project is another oft-cited example of massive collaboration, with thousands of scientists working towards the same goal. In astronomy, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey employs hundreds of astronomers with the goal of mapping 25% of the known sky.

But true “crowd-sourcing” taps into the energy of non-specialists too and their deep-seated motivation to contribute to the sum of human knowledge. Galaxy Zoo is a website where anyone can sift through data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and help out with the classification of galaxies.

The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project is another example from astronomy, tapping into the unused computing power of idle desktop computers. Contributors download a program that runs as a screen-saver, looking for patterns in radio telescope data from distant stars.

If biology is your bag, consider FoldIt, a simple program that lets users test the millions of iterations of a folded protein by working through a puzzle much like a Rubik’s cube. Researchers have also harnessed the ubiquity of cell phones and laptops, using them to track everything from noise pollution and earthquakes to bird populations.

The philosophy of engaging such “citizen scientists” is spreading, recasting the process of science as profoundly collaborative and democratic. The Creative Commons organization has recently released the Science Commons designation as a platform for presenting research to the public.

The Public Library of Science, OpenSourceScience, and OpenScience are all popular web platforms designed to foster such open-sourced collaboration amongst scientists and the crowds that are interested in their work.

Most private research companies, however, are understandably nervous about opening up their research results to the commons for fear of revealing valuable proprietary information. Innovative companies such as Proctor and Gamble provide a model of how to harness the power of the crowd without revealing trade secrets.

InnoCentive is a so-called “marketplace for ideas,” where inventive freelance scientists can be paired up with problems posed by the research community. P&G have reaped enormous benefits by posting problems on the site, using the collective power of the community to brainstorm solutions. Some 35 Fortune500 countries now use InnoCentive to outsource their research.

Newer models of transparency and crowd-sourcing are poised to become the dominant model for scientific research. They tap into people’s motivation to feel a sense of purpose and to contribute to something bigger than themselves.

Expect more 1000-author papers in the future.