kate_mills's picture
Doctoral student, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience
Only "Scientists" Can Do Science

Currently, the majority of individuals funded or employed to conduct scientific experiments have been trained in traditional academic settings. This includes not only the 12 years of compulsory education, but also another 6 to 10 years of university education—which are often followed by years of post-doctoral training. While this formal academic training undoubtedly equips individuals with the tools and resources to become successful scientists, informally trained individuals of all ages are just as able to contribute to our knowledge of the world through science.

These "citizen scientists" are often lauded for lightening the load on academic researchers engaged in big data projects. Citizen scientists have contributed to these projects by identifying galaxies or tracing neural processes, and typically without traditional incentives or rewards like payment or authorship. However, limiting the potential contributions of informally trained individuals to the roles of data-collector or data-processor discounts the abilities of citizen scientists to inform study design, as well as data analysis and interpretation. Soliciting the opinions of individuals who are participants in scientific studies (e.g., children, patients) can help traditional scientists design ecologically valid and engaging studies. Equally, these populations might have their own scientific questions, or provide new and diverse perspectives to the interpretation of results.

Importantly, science is not limited to adults. Children as young as eight have co-authored scientific reports. Teenagers have made important health discoveries with tangible outcomes. Unfortunately, these young scientists face many obstacles that institutionally funded individuals often take for granted, such as access to previously published scientific findings. The rise of open access publication, as well as many open science initiatives, make the scientific environment friendlier for citizen scientists. Unfortunately, many traditional science practices remain out of reach for those without sufficient funds.

What we think we know about ourselves through science could be skewed, since the majority of psychology studies sample individuals who do not represent the population on a whole. These WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) samples make up the majority of non-clinical neuroimaging studies as well. Increased awareness of this bias has prompted researchers to actively seek out more representative samples. However, there is less discussion or awareness around the potential biases introduced by WEIRD scientists.

If most funded and published scientific research is conducted by a sample of individuals that have been trained to be successful in academia, then we are potentially biasing scientific questions and interpretations. Individuals who might not fit into an academic mould, but nevertheless are curious to know the world through the scientific method, face many barriers. Crowd funded projects (and even scientists) are beginning to receive recognition from fellow scientists dependent on dwindling numbers of grants and academic positions. However, certain scientific experiments are more difficult, if not impossible, to conduct without institutional support, e.g., studies involving human participants. Community-supported checks and balances remain essential for scientific projects, but perhaps they too can become unbound from traditional academic settings.

The means for collecting and analyzing data are becoming more accessible to the public each day. New ethical issues will need to be discussed and infrastructures built to accommodate those conducting research outside of traditional settings. With this, we will see an increase in the number of scientific discoveries made by informally trained "citizen scientists" of all ages and backgrounds. These previously unheard voices will add valuable contributions to our knowledge of the world.