Harnessing Social Media For Science: Part 3: Deputization and Donation

Sorry this post is a long time in coming. My dissertation caught up with me and I’ve been pounding away at that for the last two weeks. Now, more on social media and science!

So far I’ve tried to show that social networks are big, and are increasingly the medium that people are using to interact with each other (read here). In my second post I presented a few examples of how scientists can use social networks as tools. Beyond the obvious potential of networking with colleagues from around the globe, I argued that social media, particularly blogs, can be a powerful tool for science education. In today’s post I will talk a little bit more about what scientists can hope to get back from their efforts engaging with social media. I will save convincing you that you have time for social networks for my fourth and final post on Harnessing Social Media for Science.

I want to first illustrate my point with this excellent video from Dr. Brian Sidlauskas’ Lab at Oregon State University:

For those of you at work who don’t want to plug in your headphones, here’s the quick version (but do go back and watch the video, it’s an excellent example of telling a good science story in an approachable way):  Professor Sidlauskas led an expedition to capture fish from the Cuyuni River in Guyana. He ended up catching some 5,000 (talk about a good day’s fishing!) but his export permits required he identify each of the fish before taking them out of the country. In order to do so, Dr. Sidlauskas uploaded pictures of the fish to his Facebook account, tagged friends (who happened to be preeminent ichthyologists) and incredibly, over the course of the next 24 hours, nearly all of the specimens had at least a preliminary identification!

Here’s an example where, without the use of social networking tools, this expedition wouldn’t have been such a success. Instead it would have taken one of two courses: Dr. Sidlauskas could have collected far fewer specimens, leaving the river under-sampled and potentially new species undiscovered, or he could have stayed in-country for the months it’d have taken to identify the fish himself, which was a prohibitively expensive prospect. Instead, he found this third, in all ways superior option through social networking.

Citizen science has increasingly been on the scientific community’s mind, there was even a recent special issue published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on the topic. Citizen science employs a “social” approach to collecting data by deputizing massive numbers of volunteers to collect a little bit of information and feed it into a broader database. In this way, very quickly, researchers can amass data that otherwise would be nearly impossible to collect by themselves.

One of the flagship citizen science projects currently underway is eBird run through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They have thousands of volunteers worldwide who have made millions of bird observations and logged them into eBird’s database. By aggregating this data they can get a very detailed look at the distribution and abundance of bird species all over the world. One of the leading criticisms of citizen science projects is data quality, but researchers are getting very sophisticated in the way they can “clean” datasets, so the data are becoming more and more useful (The Frontiers special issue has some articles to this end). Check out the data for yourself, all of eBird’s data is freely available online.

The latest, and I think one of the most exciting advancements in using social technologies for science, is crowdsourced fundraising. Competition for money from national granting agencies is getting steeper and steeper resulting in important research projects being abandoned due to a lack of resources. In the last couple of years scientists have started turning to the masses to help fund their research. The basic idea is that if a lot of people give a little bit of money, those funds can add up to enable a research project that couldn’t otherwise happen.

Kickstarter is perhaps the best-known crowdfunding website, but several additional platforms have arisen specifically to give scientists a leg up. Check out RocketHub, PetriDish, ScienceDonors, Uwingu, and the Open Genius Project for some examples. Here‘s one my brother is currently leading, check it out to see how they work!

I’m excited about crowd funding science for several reasons. First, it’s a great way to reach out and tell people about cutting edge research in an approachable way. Second, once people have given a bit of money to support a science project they’ll be invested, literally, in following the progress and results of their investment. This is a terrific way of keeping people engaged in learning about science from the beginning to the end of a research project. Finally, crowd funding is raising a lot of money – some 1.5 billion dollars last year for over a million successfully funded projects (1). Scientists can and should capitalize on this money to facilitate projects that maybe otherwise couldn’t happen.

To sum up, harnessing social networks can be a powerful tool for scientists to facilitate and fund research projects. While there are many reasons for scientists to use social media to network and reach out to inform the public, there are even more ways for scientists to benefit directly from social media in their own work. Next up, convincing scientists they have the time to dive in!

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Update: While I have a fourth post written about the next steps for scientists, I’m actually looking to publish it first in a slightly more public forum. I will keep you posted once I’ve managed to put it all together.

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