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What Makes Citizen Scientists Tick?

A new survey reveals why citizen scientists take part in crowdsourced science projects

One of the more exciting advances in modern astronomy has been the rise of the citizen scientist and the crowdsourced work these people do. Citizen scientists now routinely study everything from moon craters and Martian weather to the ocean floor and Sun storms. 

Perhaps the best known project is called Galaxy Zoo. This is a website that asks volunteers to help classify galaxies that have been photographed as part of the project called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The idea is that to understand how galaxies evolved, astronomers need to know what shapes they can form and how common these shapes are. Volunteers visually inspect images of galaxies and classify them accordingly.

Since Galaxy Zoo began in 2007, hundreds of thousands of volunteers have taken part, producing hundreds of millions of classifications. This success is far beyond the wildest dreams of the astronomers who created the project who had imagined that citizen scientists would be few and far between.

So an interesting question is who are these people and what motivates them to take part. Today, we get an answer of sorts thanks to a survey of Galaxy Zoo volunteers carried out by Jordan Raddick at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimare and a few pals.

These guys asked about 11,000 Galaxy Zoo volunteers to fill in a quick online survey that asked them about their age, sex, location and what motivated them to take part, giving them 12 options to choose from.

The results are curious. Unsurprisingly, Galaxy Zoo volunteers are overwhelmingly male with 82.1per cent being men. There is also a particular over-abundance in the 50-60 age group. Overall, the volunteers have an average age of 43 and over 60 per cent come from the US and UK. 

What is mildly surprising is their motivation for taking part. The survey asked volunteers to give their primary reason and this turned out not to be things like enjoying looking at pretty pictures of galaxies or the fun of it all. Instead, more than 40 per cent of volunteers say that the desire to contribute to science is their primary motivation. 

Raddick and co are clearly pleased with this result. “The fact that most Galaxy Zoo users are motivated by a desire to contribute to science is encouraging for the future of citizen science,” they conclude. That gives them access to a huge, highly motivated workforce prepared to work long hours for free. That’s even cheaper than employing students. What’s not to like? 

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1303.6886: Galaxy Zoo: Motivations of Citizen Scientists

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