Becoming a Citizen Scientist-3

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April 13 is Citizen Science Day. To learn more about this area of research practice I interviewed citizen scientists Jim Salmons and Timlynn Babitsky. 

I’m sharing the interview in three parts. Find the Citizen Science series here. Feel free to share your own experiences with Citizen Science in the comment area!

Q. What do you recommend to MethodSpace readers who are interested in getting more involved with the citizen science movement, as citizen scientists?

JS. A “budding” #CitizenScientist needs a high level of patience, persistence, and a bit of thick-skin to evolve into full “seat at the table” participation in a research community. Honestly, I didn’t set my sights on “just anybody” as prospective mentor/collaborators in my #PLN. I went for connecting with those who could arguably be considered the top researchers in our domain of interest. Researchers at this level of professional knowledge and community involvement (leading conferences, participating in research infrastructure organizations and projects, etc.) are absolutely among the busiest people you will meet in today’s “what have you done for me lately” world of academic research university employment. Emails and tweets can go unanswered or suffer long delays in response. You have to be patient, resourceful in finding alternative solutions to requests made to your #PLN mentors, and of course, have a thick skin to accept the sometimes brutal assessment of your work by those in your research community who “do not suffer fools lightly” or who are simply hostile to us “amateurs.”

The three attributes that a budding #CitizenScientist must nurture are patience, being resourceful in finding “alternate routes” to a goal or information/resource need, and that thick skin to weather the early bumpy road to eventual success and acceptance as a member of your research community. Beyond these traits, the most important thing to do early in your evolution as a #CitizenScientist is to develop and evolve your #PLN, your Personal Learning Network of mentor/collaborators.

Jim Salmons and Timlynn Babitsky

TB. And, of course, “the more you know” makes a whole hill of difference in communicating with a top-dog researcher. But, more than anything: Don’t give up!

Q. Since MethodSpace is about research methods, can you briefly describe how you engage in research?

TB. Throughout this interview we have repeatedly used the #PLN hashtag and the Personal Learning Network term. This is because our approach to being an independent, unaffiliated, and non-traditionally trained #CitizenScientist is almost entirely built on the quality and evolution of our #PLN. Of course, our Personal Learning Network is essential for self-learning, but it is also the means for validation of our work, and for introduction to researchers and projects that would not typically give us the time of day if we were to just introduce ourselves directly.

In the pre-Internet days, #PLNs were largely personal relationships and face-to-face interactions, limited in scope by distance and time. Access to deep learning depended to a large extent on formal education in university settings where only pursuit of advanced degrees provided entre to professorial mentors and collaborators.

Today’s digital world is far more flexible and far-reaching. Today’s #PLNs tend to be multi-layered with the more traditional core personal relationships developed by co-location at conferences and workshops, buttressed by a fluid and evolving layer of informal and much less personal relationships with people we do not know personally. In fact, we have never met face-to-face with most of the amazing researchers we consider mentors/collaborators, nor have we talked with them in real time, nor seen other than their work and photos of their faces. Yet we have extensive communications and strong feelings of connection to these amazing and most-helpful people.

Today, Kevin Bacon aside, we are only one click away from nearly anyone whose work we follow, or research projects that inform and inspire where we are headed with our own research interests. But personal interest in another researcher’s work doesn’t guarantee reciprocal interest and reply. In developing our #PLN we don’t even open communication before we have a good understanding of why we are interested, and how what we are doing would support or be of interest to that researcher, project, or committee focus.  All three editions of the classic work of Allan Cohen and David Bradley – Influence Without Authority – have been our relationship-building “bibles” for decades.

So, developing a robust #PLN is central to how we engage in research. Then, to further support our research, gain wider visibility, and extend our #PLN we have essentially engaged in, and been the beneficiaries of, the emergence of #OpenAccess, eResearch, and eScholarship infrastructure. This has allowed us to participate in organizations, submit research papers and posters, and digitally attend remotely, all kinds of large and small events – workshops, colloquia, conferences, etc. where we have been able to establish our own and our projects’ reputations. Make no mistake, it hasn’t been a straight fast-lane to where we are today. We’ve been on our post-cancer #PayItForward path for over 5 years now.

Q. What suggestions do you have for professional or academic researchers who would like to collaborate with citizen scientists?

TB. As a former teacher and current researcher, I see this from both a personal and research project point of view. The first advice I would offer is to be personally open to establishing mentoring relationships with non-traditional but obviously passionately interested individuals. Whether this means being open to folks finding and contacting you one-on-one through social media and social networks, or in the case of #CitizenScience projects, identifying highly-engaged data gathering “volunpeers”. Even the smallest act of kindness in acknowledging and communicating with a budding #CitizenScientist can be immensely motivating and rewarding to that person who admires and values your opinion.

The other aspect of this openness to #CitizenScientists has to do with researchers’ project designs and associated websites. Take a close look at the contact forms and project description pages of your research project websites. Do you have an “on ramp” to channel inquiries from non-traditional researchers, especially self-identified #CitizenScientists? Even if the likelihood of one showing up is small, it is important to lay out the Welcome mat now so that the way is prepared for what will surely be a growing wave of passion-driven, energetic, and potentially innovative colleagues who just want a chance to earn a seat at the table.

Q. What do you hear from those you work with about the value of having citizen scientists involved in their work/projects?

JS. Academic research groups rarely say much in terms of “big statements” about our work specifically, or #CitizenScientists in general. But there are indicators that these research communities are warming to the presence of us “new kids on the block.” For example, I am proud to be identified as an Independent Citizen Scientist on the list of Board members of the the Ontology Design Patterns Association (ODPA), and on the Program Committee for #DATeCH2019 — the Digital Access to Textual Cultural Heritage conference. To explicitly be referenced as an Independent Citizen Scientist shows that these organizations recognize change is in the wind, and that having one of us among them is not an aberration but is, in fact, an early recognition of a wave of things to come.


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