Citizen scientists developing expertise on galaxy images

June 25, 2018, University of Gothenburg
Citizen scientists developing expertise on galaxy images
Credit: University of Gothenburg

Two researchers from the University of Gothenburg have studied large amounts of data in a citizen science project that turns to volunteers for help classifying images of galaxies.

'We can see how interested volunteers have developed expertise that we didn't foresee,' says Dick Kasperowski, associate professor of theory of science and co-author of the study.

'We have studied how volunteers in the Galaxy Zoo are mobilised by scientists and how their knowledge grows. It's quite surprising how some participants develop extensive expertise about how images of galaxies are created and how the instruments work,' says Thomas Hillman, associate professor of information technology and learning.

Hillman is from the Department of Education, Communication and Learning and Kasperowski is from the Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science, and their study The Epistemic Culture in an Online Citizen Science Project: Programs, Antiprograms and Epistemic Subjects has been published in Social Studies of Science.

Observations that does not fit the protocol

The possibility of discovering phenomena that nobody has ever seen before makes many volunteers eager to help classify large numbers of galaxies within the framework of the Galaxy Zoo project. Sooner or later, each will make an observation that does not fit the protocol. Then they will turn to the project's online discussion forum with hopes of having made a brand-new discovery. This is what happened to Dutch schoolteacher Henny van Arkel, who in 2009 discovered what scientists believe are remains of a quasar. As a result, van Arkel ended up co-authoring the scientific article that was written about the discovery.

However, most of the volunteers who think they may have made a new discovery are told by scientists that what they have seen is a mere artefact generated by the instrument that created the image in question. In some cases, they become interested in what an artefact is, and some even become skilled enough to be able to see what instrument was used to create a certain image.

'We have seen that a culture of shared learning and knowledge is created among people who hang out together online and discuss artefacts and how they can learn more,' says Hillman.

Based on 675 000 discussions

Hillman and Kasperowski's findings are based on 675 000 discussion threads retrieved from the Galaxy Zoo online forum.

'It's really easy to participate. All you need to do is classify according to a set protocol. In our study, we looked for cases where participants made observations that didn't fit the protocol. We assessed the intensity in the and what people say there,' says Kasperowski.

The results of the study are important as they show how knowledge is developed by participants in this type of large-scale online project.

'For example, the particular factors that motivate participants. It is also interesting to see how citizen science projects, no matter how well-structured they are, also generate learning that is beyond a project's control,' says Hillman.

Next, Hillman and Kasperowski will study other citizen science projects, include in the humanities, with an aim to learn more about how participants develop knowledge and interests beyond the tasks that scientists and researchers originally mobilised them to perform.

'We have some preliminary findings showing that those types of participant activities can in fact lead researchers onto new paths,' says Kasperowski.

The study, titled The Epistemic Culture in an Online Citizen Science Project: Programs, Antiprograms and Epistemic Subjects, is available free of charge.

Explore further: Could you help build a galaxy?

More information: Dick Kasperowski et al, The epistemic culture in an online citizen science project: Programs, antiprograms and epistemic subjects, Social Studies of Science (2018). DOI: 10.1177/0306312718778806

Related Stories

Public contributions to science increasingly common

January 15, 2016

So-called citizen science has become a significant force in several scholarly disciplines. The phenomenon can be found in both the natural and the social sciences, according to the largest systematic analysis to date on the ...

Recommended for you

Apple pivot led by star-packed video service

March 25, 2019

With Hollywood stars galore, Apple unveiled its streaming video plans Monday along with news and game subscription offerings as part of an effort to shift its focus to digital content and services to break free of its reliance ...

How tree diversity regulates invading forest pests

March 25, 2019

A national-scale study of U.S. forests found strong relationships between the diversity of native tree species and the number of nonnative pests that pose economic and ecological threats to the nation's forests.

Scientists solve mystery shrouding oldest animal fossils

March 25, 2019

Scientists from The Australian National University (ANU) have discovered that 558 million-year-old Dickinsonia fossils do not reveal all of the features of the earliest known animals, which potentially had mouths and guts.

Earth's deep mantle flows dynamically

March 25, 2019

As ancient ocean floors plunge over 1,000 km into the Earth's deep interior, they cause hot rock in the lower mantle to flow much more dynamically than previously thought, finds a new UCL-led study.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.