Galaxy quest starts small

November 3, 2011

It was good to see "citizen science" featured in Times Higher Education ("Powered by the people", 20 October), but the article's claim that the vast majority of initiatives in this area are American-based is untrue. My own project, Galaxy Zoo, which boasts more than 30 papers and 250,000 volunteers, does involve American researchers, but was founded and is led by a team at the University of Oxford, alongside astronomers from Nottingham and Portsmouth universities.

Galaxy Zoo has led to the development of a host of UK-led projects, looking at everything from space weather (Solar Stormwatch) to historical weather data (Old Weather). Most of these are, in the terminology used by the article, "passive" - consisting of relatively simple tasks - but they are also the gateway to more advanced interactions and to truly independent research. Galaxy Zoo volunteers have led the discovery of new classes of galaxy, for example, but they wouldn't have had the knowledge or, I suspect, the confidence to do so without first taking part in a simpler stage of the project.

More openness - with data and software as well as with the literature - will help citizen science, of course, but the real need is to design a portfolio of meaningful tasks that in themselves constitute an authentic contribution to research at all levels of interest and ability. I'm pleased to report that the UK and Europe are producing some of the most innovative projects here, too.

Chris Lintott, Principal investigator Galaxy Zoo, University of Oxford, http://www.zooniverse.org

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