Is crowdsourcing the future of scientific research?

Most scientists like to collaborate, at least with other scientists.

However, that scenario is starting to change thanks to something called crowdsourcing, a term first coined in 2006 that basically means groups of people coming together to solve a common problem.

The concept is now moving into the realm of science, where scientists and “normal” people are coming together to advance scientific endeavors. A Michigan State University scholar is looking at it a bit more closely to see if it truly is the future of research.

Casey O’Donnell, an assistant professor in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media, has received a grant from the National Science Foundation of $156,000 to examine how collaborative online games are being used to solve problems in the world of biochemistry and molecular physics.

“The grant is really to try to unpack what is going on with crowdsourcing science and why games have become a part of the focus,” he said.

O’Donnell and colleagues are looking at two specific games – Fold.It and EteRNA – that simulate protein and RNA folding. These games take the collective knowledge of a wide range of people – from Ph.D.s to serious gamers – to try to decipher the three-dimensional structure of a protein or nucleic acid.

“We’re asking, ‘what are the long-term consequences for science? What does it mean that science happens this way?’” he said. “Large numbers of players are collaborating to solve complex problems through games, and we need to understand the broader implications.”

Generally speaking, O’Donnell said crowdsourcing could play a very integral role in the advancing of scientific research.

“Increasingly,” he said, “we’re seeing the rise of crowdsource science coincides with the drop in science funding.”

Another advantage to crowdsourcing is that it makes science accessible to more people, allowing most everyone to be a part of the process.

“For a long time the results of science have been, for the most part, incomprehensible,” O’Donnell said. “This subverts that because suddenly you have people that are part of the ‘normal’ population that are acting as advocates for and participants in science.”

So is it helping to advance scientific research? Time will tell, O’Donnell said, but already some results are showing. For example, data gathered through the EteRNA game are being put to the test in a lab at Stanford University.

“Ultimately, for me, it’s how technologies come to contain knowledge and produce new kinds of knowledge that neither the scientific community nor the gaming community could produce on their own,” he said.

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