citizen science for organization studies?
As a good navel-gazing academic, I often find myself thinking about the research process: how do we discover or produce new knowledge? Naturally, I’m especially interested in how we do this in the world of org theory: Where do our questions come from? How do we experience the organizational world? How do the people and interactions our data represent speak to us? Basically, what is good research? And, while we’re at it, how can we do more of it?
About 15 years ago, with the help of the Sloan Foundation, some colleagues and I launched a project called Science and Technology in the Making (STIM) that was intended to use this new technology called the World Wide Web as a tool for research. Remember that at the time (some would say, to this day), the web was used primarily as a means for sharing what we already knew, not generating new knowledge. We tried to engage various communities to contribute their experiences so that we scholars could have access to heretofore unavailable accounts of things like the computer mouse, the New York City blackouts of 1965 and 1977, Boston’s “Big Dig” and the electric vehicle (my contribution).
I’ll spare you the sausage making (more here), but I would like to think that we were anticipating one of the most interesting recent developments in the natural sciences, the growth of so-called citizen science. Though scientists have always been citizens, citizen science refers to distributed, large-scale research projects that encourage and rely upon participation by multiple individuals. You may have heard, for instance, of Zooniverse, eBird, etc. Most of these projects ask participants to contribute their observations of natural phenomenon to online databases that could, in principle, be intepreted by anyone, but, in practice, are interpreted by professional scholars. Some, like galaxyzoo and phylo, ask participants to interpret and code visual images that require human judgment. The algorithms aren’t yet good enough to do it for us.
The knowledge production process in these projects is pretty straightforward. People participate freely. It’s educational. It probably builds support for science more broadly. I can imagine some ethical issues arising around intellectual ownership, allocation of credit, and status reinforcement, and I do not know if anyone has looked at the quality of the data (in absolute or relative terms), but on the whole, citizen science seems like a pretty positive development. Besides, Clay Shirky says we waste a trillion hours each year anyway so with more citizen science, maybe we will waste a little less on TV.
If more is better, are there examples of citizen science in the community of scholars that study organizations? I hope so. If not, can we think of projects or ideas that would lend themselves to collective effort? The fine folks at the Sloan Foundation have even sponsored the Citizen Science Alliance to help us get started. Comment or email to get the conversation going.