House Bill Raises Questions about Crowdsourcing

Anne Bowser for Commons Lab (Wilson Center):”A new bill in the House is raising some key questions about how crowdsourcing is understood by scientists, government agencies, policymakers and the public at large.
Robin Bravender’s recent article in Environment & Energy Daily, “House Republicans Push Crowdsourcing on Agency Science,” (subscription required) neatly summarizes the debate around H.R. 4012, a bill introduced to the House of Representatives earlier this month. The House Science, Space and Technology Committe earlier this week held a hearing on the bill, which could see a committee vote as early as next month.
Dubbed the “Secret Science Reform Act of 2014,” the bill prohibits the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from “proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible.” If the bill is passed, EPA would be unable to base assessments or regulations on any information not “publicly available in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis.” This would include all information published in scholarly journals based on data that is not available as open source.
The bill is based on the premise that forcing EPA to use public data will inspire greater transparency by allowing “the crowd” to conduct independent analysis and interpretation. While the premise of involving the public in scientific research is sound, this characterization of crowdsourcing as a process separate from traditional scientific research is deeply problematic.
This division contrasts the current practices of many researchers, who use crowdsourcing to directly involve the public in scientific processes. Galaxy Zoo, for example, enlists digital volunteers (called “citizen scientists”) help classify more than 40 million photographs of galaxies taken by the Hubble Telescope. These crowdsourced morphological classifications are a powerful form of data analysis, a key aspect of the scientific process. Galaxy Zoo then publishes a catalogue of these classifications as an open-source data set. And the data reduction techniques and measures of confidence and bias for the data catalogue are documented in MNRAS, a peer-reviewed journal. A recent Google Scholar search shows that the data set published in MNRAS has been cited a remarkable 121 times.
As this example illustrates, crowdsourcing is often embedded in the process of formal scientific research. But prior to being published in a scientific journal, the crowdsourced contributions of non-professional volunteers are subject to the scrutiny of professional scientists through the rigorous process of peer review. Because peer review was designed as an institution to ensure objective and unbiased research, peer-reviewed scientific work is widely accepted as the best source of information for any science-based decision.
Separating crowdsourcing from the peer review process, as this legislation intends, means that there will be no formal filters in place to ensure that open data will not be abused by special interests. Ellen Silbergeld, a professor at John Hopkins University who testified at the hearing this week, made exactly this point when she pointed to data manipulation commonly practiced by tobacco lobbyists in the United States.
Contributing to scientific research is one goal of crowdsourcing for science. Involving the public in scientific research also increases volunteer understanding of research topics and the scientific process and inspires heightened community engagement. These goals are supported by President Obama’s Second Open Government National Action Plan, which calls for “increased crowdsourcing and citizen science programs” to support “an informed and active citizenry.” But H.R. 4012 does not support these goals. Rather, this legislation could further degrade the public’s understanding of science by encouraging the public to distrust professional scientists rather than collaborate with them.
Crowdsourcing benefits organizations by bringing in the unique expertise held by external volunteers, which can augment and enhance the traditional scientific process. In return, these volunteers benefit from exposure to new and exciting processes, such as scientific research. This mutually beneficial relationship depends on collaboration, not opposition. Supporting an antagonistic relationship between science-based organizations like the EPA and members of “the crowd” will benefit neither institutions, nor volunteers, nor the country as a whole.