Crowdsourcing Science

Radiolab is one of my favorite podcasts.  I save them up for long runs.  Jad and Robert’s science-y musings make 10 miles pass in the blink of an eye (well, an hour and half blink-but still).  Typically rooted in the natural (hard) sciences of biology, anatomy, physiology, physics, and astronomy, they also dip into social science often as they relate to their harder friends.  While the show hasn’t yet devoted an entire episode to scholarly communication (insert plug for such show here), many Radiolabs make me think about the state and future of scholarly communication. 

The Short, “9-Volt Nirvana” aired Jun 26, 2014 has me considering unintentional human subject crowdsourcing.  In this episode trans-cranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is used to increase the rapidity of learning through use of targeted electrical stimulation to the brain.  The more controlled (in a lab with neuroscientist) version of this experiment details the brain zappings of Sally Adee, an editor at New Scientist and Radiolab host Jad Abumrod.  Sally is asked to play a war game, shooting at video targets with a very realistic gun.  Jad tries to view those insanity-inducing 3D posters that created crowds of zombie like shoppers surrounding mall kiosks, staring open-mouthed at colorful posters.  Both Sally and Jad are pretty miserable at completing their tasks quickly and accurately the first time round, then they get zapped.  Post-zap results in quick fire Sally and butterfly seeing Jad.  The idea is that stimulating a particular neuron path with electricity allows your brain to know the right answer/path for faster task completion.  Oh, and zapping also produces a metal taste.  Weird.

My dystopia prone self immediately envisioned class assigned zapping protocols in maternity units.  With the most advantaged receiving the “beginners guide to yatching-zap,” rural hospitals with tDCS stimulators set to, “dig, plant, harvest” and manufacturing giants lobbying congress to get more automobile, furniture, clothing, etc. assembly volts in the city’s hospitals.

Then the story takes an even more disturbing, right now, present day, for reals, turn.  Youtube is filled with people building and testing their own tDCSers.  My history reading self knows this is how science experimentation started, doctors testing on themselves and others.  But add the internet and you have a potential explosion of fried brains, or a crowdsourced human subject experiment lab.  Youtesttube.  I wonder how many neuroscientists studying the effects of tDCSers have watched the videos and had new ideas about their work as a result. 

Crowdsourcing is not new to science. eBird is a citizen-based bird observation website, allowing any ole bird watcher to log and share data.  From, “eBird’s goal is to maximize the utility and accessibility of the vast numbers of bird observations made each year by recreational and professional bird watchers.”  The difference, clearly is the lack of human subject matter here, but it’s still science, crowdsourced, by non-experts.

Where’s the ethical line drawn?  Will there be protocols for self-administered experiments?  I’m not advocating for anything here, just musing (with a hefty dash of worry). 

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Updated Jul 15, 2014 by Interim Dean