Citizen Science Meets Humanities

Before science became Science, before systematic principles of how one conducts research and the scientific method became part of the ideology of being a scientist, there were common people with curiosities about the natural world and how it works. Often, those curiosities were a direct result of what these average folk were observing in the world. These are the people who, without any formal scientific training, helped build the discipline as we know it today: Francis Bacon, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, Ada Lovelace…

Somewhere in the last century, though, Science (in the mind of many) somehow transformed into a discipline that lives on a pedestal reachable by only a few. Ask your average grade-schooler to draw a scientist and what do you get?  Images of white, old, entitled, male individuals who are genetically-predisposed to clever thinking. By formalizing Science as a discipline, it somehow became exclusionary.

BUT (there is always a ‘but’), in the last decade a very interesting thing has been happening. As the Internet and technology have become more and more accessible to the general public, we’ve seen scientists turning to this public to aid in their research through the form of Citizen Science. Interfaces such as Galaxy Zoo allow your average person with access to the Internet and to engage with scientific research without special training, and without having to leave the comfort of their own home. More and more, that curiosity has begun to spread to classrooms and homes all over the world, as well as to disciplines outside of science.

"Royal Irish Rifles ration party Somme July 1916" by Royal Engineers No 1 Printing Company. - This is photograph Q 1 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 1900-02). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Royal Irish Rifles ration party Somme July 1916” by Royal Engineers No 1 Printing Company. – This is photograph Q 1 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 1900-02). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the humanities, projects such as Ancient Lives and Operation War Diary are allowing individuals from all walks of life — historical scholars, plumbers, stay-at-home parents — to engage with academic research in a way that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. By crowd-sourcing the work, humanities scholars are speeding up tedious processes like simple transcription and tagging while, at the same time, engaging the general public with the work that they are doing. This crowd-sourcing also acts to break down the myth “that scholarly conclusions can only be authentic, authoritative, and reliable when determined by a single expert” (Smith).

The benefits of what I am now calling Citizen Humanities are significant. Not least of which is the demystification of what different humanities scholars do. Just as it does for science, it makes the disciplines accessible in an intellectual way (without the erudition), helping lay-people to see themselves as scholars who can contribute to the discourse without needing to obtain a degree from Oxford or Yale ahead of time.

At the same time, it provides educators with resources for their classroom. In a climate of economic restriction, many public schools find that their ability to offer labs or research opportunities are cut. Even more, many schools find their budgets cut to the extent that classes in the humanities themselves are at risk of disappearing.

This isn’t to say that Digital Humanities efforts don’t have their own, unique challenges or that it democratizes completely. Crowd-sourced research leaves itself open to errors that could have exponential effects (one error left uncaught can quickly be reproduced and built upon by others). And the work available for commentary and contribution are dictated by the scholars with the initiative to begin DH projects…those with access to the technology, the knowledge of how to approach them, and the support to do so. Which, unfortunately, can translate into reinforcing the existing canon in a digital platform, rather than representing marginalized or absent voices.

However, the potential is there and there is reason to be hopeful. As Open Source Code and software become more and more available, those interested in diversifying accessible content have at least some of the resources to bridge these gaps. They will simply require the ingenuity and creative thinking necessary to make their projects happen.

2 thoughts on Citizen Science Meets Humanities

  1. Hi Heather,

    Thanks for the informative read! Long ago and far away, I was a few years into a pre-med program, so it’s always fascinating to hear how the sciences are getting involved in places that seem, for some reason, distinctly “not-science” spheres. I particularly like your point on how these resources can be used in the classroom, specifically within schools that are facing funding crises and budget cuts. I’m personally glad, also, that this “unreachable” idea of a “scientist” is falling to the wayside.


  2. Hi Heather,
    I thought you did a great job of being positive about the benefits of opening digital humanities and crowdsourcing while being realistic about the possible detractions. Citizen humanities is a great way to describe this effort to draw on people’s knowledge. However, like you mentioned, there are problems that could arise from this. I am more doubtful of the value of crowdsourcing. I think we (scholars) will keep working with citizens, but there can’t be that same level of trust we give to other scholars. There is still a place for the scientist and while a wizened old man is not the scientist of today (hopefully), there does need to be watch guard of the citizens. There still needs to be a hierarchy of learning, that getting a higher degree means something. At one point do the citizens devalue or even threaten the place of the researcher?
    These are just some thoughts I had while reading your article.


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