After dinner: the best time to create 1.5 million dollars of ground-breaking science

Count this! In celebration of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, NASA’s Great Observatories — the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory — collaborated to produce this image of the central region of our Milky Way galaxy. Image: Nasa Marshall Space Flight Center
Since it first launched as a single project called Galaxy Zoo in 2007, the Zooniverse has grown into the world’s largest citizen science platform, with more than 25 science projects and over 1 million registered volunteer citizen scientists. While initially focused on astronomy projects, such as those exploring the surfaces of the moon and the planet Mars, the platform now offers volunteers the opportunity to read and transcribe old ship logs and war diaries, identify animals in nature capture photos, track penguins, listen to whales communicating and map kelp from space.

These projects are examples of citizen science; collaborative research undertaken by professional scientists and members of the public. Through these projects, individuals who are not necessarily knowledgeable about or familiar with science can become active participants in knowledge creation (such as in the examples listed in the Chicago Tribune: Want to aid science? You can Zooniverse).

The Zooniverse is a predominant example of citizen science projects that have enjoyed particularly widespread popularity and traction online.

Although science-public collaborative efforts have long existed, the Zooniverse is a predominant example of citizen science projects that have enjoyed particularly widespread popularity and traction online. In addition to making science more open and accessible, online citizen science accelerates research by leveraging human and computing resources, tapping into rare and diverse pools of expertise, providing informal scientific education and training, motivating individuals to learn more about science, and making science fun and part of everyday life.

While online citizen science is a relatively recent phenomenon, it has attracted considerable academic attention. Various studies have been undertaken to examine and understand user behaviour, motivation, and the benefits and implications of different projects for them. For instance, Sauermann and Franzoni’s analysis of seven Zooniverse projects (Solar Stormwatch, Galaxy Zoo Supernovae, Galaxy Zoo Hubble, Moon Zoo, Old Weather, The Milkyway Project, and Planet Hunters) found that 60 percent of volunteers never return to a project after finishing their first session of contribution. By comparing contributions to these projects with those of research assistants and Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, they also calculated that these voluntary efforts amounted to an equivalent of $1.5 million in human resource costs.

Our own project on the taxonomy and ecology of contributions to the Zooniverse examines the geographical, gendered and temporal patterns of contributions and contributors to 17 Zooniverse projects between 2009 and 2013. Our preliminary results show that:

  • The geographical distribution of volunteers and contributions is highly uneven, with the UK and US contributing the bulk of both. Quantitative analysis of 130 countries show that of three factors – population, GDP per capita and number of Internet users – the number of Internet users is most strongly correlated with the number of volunteers and number of contributions. However, when population is controlled, GDP per capita is found to have greater correlation with numbers of users and volunteers. The correlations are positive, suggesting that wealthier (or more developed) countries are more likely to be involved in the citizen science projects.
The Global distribution of contributions to the projects within our dataset of 35 million records. The number of contributions of each country is normalized to the population of the country.
The Global distribution of contributions to the projects within our dataset of 35 million records. The number of contributions of each country is normalized to the population of the country.
  • Female volunteers are underrepresented in most countries. Very few countries have gender parity in participation. In many other countries, women make up less than one-third of number of volunteers whose gender is known. The female ratio of participation in the UK and Australia, for instance, is 25 per cent, while the figures for US, Canada and Germany are between 27 and 30 per cent. These figures are notable when compared with the percentage of academic jobs in the sciences held by women. In the UK, women make up only 30.3 percent of full time researchers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) departments (UKRC report, 2010), and 24 per cent in the United States (US Department of Commerce report, 2011).
  • Our analysis of user preferences and activity show that in general, there is a strong subject preference among users, with two main clusters evident among users who participate in more than one project. One cluster revolves around astrophysics projects. Volunteers in these projects are more likely to take part in other astrophysics projects, and when one project ends, volunteers are more likely to start a new project within this cluster. Similarly, volunteers in the other cluster, which are concentrated around life and Earth science projects, have a higher likelihood of being involved in other life and Earth science projects than in astrophysics projects. There is less cross-project involvement between the two main clusters.
Dendrogram showing the overlap of contributors between projects. The scale indicates the similarity between the pools of contributors to pairs of projects. Astrophysics (blue) and Life-Earth Science (green and brown) projects create distinct clusters. Old Weather 1 and WhaleFM are exceptions to this pattern, and Old Weather 1 has the most distinct pool of contributors.
Dendrogram showing the overlap of contributors between projects. The scale indicates the similarity between the pools of contributors to pairs of projects. Astrophysics (blue) and Life-Earth Science (green and brown) projects create distinct clusters. Old Weather 1 and WhaleFM are exceptions to this pattern, and Old Weather 1 has the most distinct pool of contributors.
  • In addition to a tendency for cross-project activity to be contained within the same clusters, there is also a gendered pattern of engagement in various projects. Females make up more than half of gender-identified volunteers in life science projects (Snapshot Serengeti, Notes from Nature and WhaleFM have more than 50 per cent of women contributors). In contrast, the proportions of women are lowest in astrophysics projects (Galaxy Zoo Supernovae and Planet Hunters have less than 20 per cent of female contributors). These patterns suggest that science subjects in general are gendered, a finding that correlates with those by the US National Science Foundation (2014). According to an NSF report, there are relatively few women in engineering (13 per cent), computer and mathematical sciences (25 per cent), but they are well-represented in the social sciences (58 per cent) and biological and medical sciences (48 per cent).
  • For the 20 most active countries (led by the UK, US and Canada), the most productive hours in terms of user contributions are between 8pm and 10pm. This suggests that citizen science is an after-dinner activity (presumably, reflecting when most people have free time before bed). This general pattern corresponds with the idea that many types of online peer-production activities, such as citizen science, are driven by ‘cognitive surplus’, that is, the aggregation of free time spent on collective pursuits (Shirky, 2010).

These are just some of the results of our study, which has found that despite being informal, relatively more open and accessible, online citizen science exhibits similar geographical and gendered patterns of knowledge production as professional, institutional science. In other ways, citizen science is different. Unlike institutional science, the bulk of citizen science activity happens late in the day, after the workday has ended and people are winding down after dinner and before bed.

We will continue our investigations into the patterns of activity in citizen science and the behaviour of citizen scientists, in order to help improve ways to make science more accessible in general and to tap into the resources of the public for scientific knowledge production. It is anticipated that upcoming projects on the Zooniverse will be more diversified and include topics from the humanities and social sciences. Towards this end, we aim to continue our investigations into patterns of activity on the citizen science platform, and the implications of a wider range of projects on the user base (in terms of age, gender and geographical coverage) and on user behaviour.


Sauermann, H., & Franzoni, C. (2015). Crowd science user contribution patterns and their implications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences112(3), 679-684.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. Penguin: London.

Taha Yasseri is the Research Fellow in Computational Social Science at the OII. Prior to coming to the OII, he spent two years as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, working on the socio-physical aspects of the community of Wikipedia editors, focusing on conflict and editorial wars, along with Big Data analysis to understand human dynamics, language complexity, and popularity spread. He has interests in analysis of Big Data to understand human dynamics, government-society interactions, mass collaboration, and opinion dynamics.

The Future of Europe is Science — and ethical foresight should be a priority

On October 6 and 7, the European Commission, with the participation of Portuguese authorities and the support of the Champalimaud Foundation, organised in Lisbon a high-level conference on “The Future of Europe is Science”. Mr. Barroso, President of the European Commission, opened the meeting. I had the honour of giving one of the keynote addresses.

The explicit goal of the conference was twofold. On the one hand, we tried to take stock of European achievements in science, engineering, technology and innovation (SETI) during the last 10 years. On the other hand, we looked into potential future opportunities that SETI may bring to Europe, both in economic terms (growth, jobs, new business opportunities) and in terms of wellbeing (individual welfare and higher social standards).

One of the most interesting aspects of the meeting was the presentation of the latest report on “The Future of Europe is Science” by the President’s Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC). The report addresses some very big questions: How will we keep healthy? How will we live, learn, work and interact in the future? How will we produce and consume and how will we manage resources? It also seeks to outline some key challenges that will be faced by Europe over the next 15 years. It is well written, clear, evidence-based and convincing. I recommend reading it. In what follows, I wish to highlight three of its features that I find particularly significant.

First, it is enormously refreshing and reassuring to see that the report treats science and technology as equally important and intertwined. The report takes this for granted, but anyone stuck in some Greek dichotomy between knowledge (episteme, science) and mere technique (techne, technology) will be astonished. While this divorcing of the two has always been a bad idea, it is still popular in contexts where applied science, e.g. applied physics or engineering, is considered a Cinderella. During my talk, I referred to Galileo as a paradigmatic scientist who had to be innovative in terms of both theories and instruments.

Today, technology is the outcome of innovative science and there is almost no science that is independent of technology, in terms of reliance on digital data and processing or (and this is often an inclusive or) in terms of investigations devoted to digital phenomena, e.g. in the social sciences. Of course, some Fields Medallists may not need computers to work, and may not work on computational issues, but they represent an exception. This year, Hiroshi Amano, Shuji Nakamura and Isamu Akasaki won the Nobel in physics “for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources”. Last year, François Englert and Peter Higgs were awarded the Nobel in physics “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider”. Without the technologically sophisticated work done at CERN, their theoretical discovery would have remained unsupported. The hope is that universities, research institutions, R&D centres as well as national research agencies will follow the approach espoused by STAC and think strategically in terms of technoscience.

The second point concerns some interesting statistics. The report uses several sources—especially the 2014 Eurobarometer survey of “Public perception of science, research and innovation”—to analyse and advise about the top priorities for SETI over the next 15 years, as identified by EU respondents. The picture that emerges is an ageing population worried, first of all, about its health, then about its children’s jobs, and only after that about the environment: 55 % of respondents identified “health and medical care” as among what they thought should be the main priorities for science and technological development over the next 15 years; 49 % opted for “job creation”; 33 % privileged “education and skills”. So we spent most of the meeting in Lisbon discussing these three areas. Other top priorities include “protection of the environment” (30 %), “energy supply” (25 %) and the “fight against climate change” (22 %).

So far so predictable, although it is disappointing to see such a low concern about the environment, a clear sign that even educated Europeans (with the exception of Danish and Swedish respondents) may not be getting the picture: there is no point in being healthy and employed in a desert. Yet this is not what I wish to highlight. Rather, on p. 14 of the report, the authors themselves admit that: “Contrary to our expectations, citizens do not consider the protection of personal data to be a high priority for SET in the next 15 years (11 %)”. This is very interesting. As a priority, data protection ranks as low as quality of housing: nice, but very far from essential. The authors quickly add that “but this might change in the future if citizens are confronted with serious security problems”.

They are right, but the point remains that, at the moment, all the fuss about privacy in the EU is a political rather than a social priority. Recall that this is an ageing population of grown-ups, not a bunch of teenagers in love with pictures of cats and friends online, allegedly unable to appreciate what privacy means (a caricature increasingly unbelievable anyway). Perhaps we “do not get it” when we should (a bit like the environmental issues) and need to be better informed. Or perhaps we are informed and still think that other issues are much more pressing. Either way, our political representatives should take notice.

Finally, and most importantly, the report contains a recommendation that I find extremely wise and justified. On p. 19, the Advisory Council acknowledges that, among the many foresight activities to be developed by the Commission, one in particular “should also be a priority”: ethical foresight. This must be one of the first times that ethical foresight is theorised as a top priority in the development of science and technology. The recommendation is based on the crucial and correct realisation that ethical choices, values, options and constraints influence the world of SETI much more than any other force. The evaluation of what is morally good, right or necessary shapes public opinion, hence the socially acceptable and the politically feasible and so, ultimately, the legally enforceable.

In the long run, business is constrained by law, which is constrained by ethics. This essential triangle means that—in the context of technoscientific research, development and innovation—ethics cannot be a mere add-on, an afterthought, a latecomer or an owl of Minerva that takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering, once bad solutions have been implemented and mistakes have been made. Ethics must sit at the table of policy-making and decision-taking procedures from day one. It must inform our strategies about SETI especially at the beginning, when changing the course of action is easier and less costly, in terms of resources and impact. We must think twice but above all we must think before taking important steps, in order to avoid wandering into what Galileo defined as the dark labyrinth of ignorance.

As I stressed at the end of my keynote, the future of Europe is science, and this is why our priority must be ethics now.

Read the editorial: Floridi, L. (2014) Technoscience and Ethics Foresight. Editorial, Philosophy & Technology 27 (4) 499-501.

Luciano Floridi is the OII’s Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information. His research areas are the philosophy of Information, information and computer ethics, and the philosophy of technology. His most recent book is The Fourth Revolution – How the infosphere is reshaping human reality (2014, Oxford University Press).