Music, Mayans, Maps: Citizen science and the digital humanities

Notes from US Navy steamer Bear's log book. June 22, 1884. Photo credit: National Archives.

Notes from US Navy steamer Bear’s log book. June 22, 1884. Photo credit: National Archives. From the Oldweather project.

Teaching scientific and technical writing to undergraduate STEM students at North Carolina State University, a land-grant institution known for its engineering and agricultural programs, has forced me to think quite a lot about what C.P. Snow called the two cultures: the humanities and the sciences. I’ve come to think that citizen science projects are helping to challenge the division between these two cultures, while valuing the different traditions. In addition to the many citizen science projects that conduct, well, scientific research, there are some that conduct other kinds of scholarly research, including work done in the humanities and social sciences. In today’s post, I’d like to share some projects that advance research in the humanities and social sciences.

Image from the Ancient Lives project.

Image from the Ancient Lives project. “Studying the lives of ancient Greeks”

Ancient Lives Project, the one project filed under “humanities” in the Zooniverse, helps researchers transcribe Greco-Roman texts recovered from fragments of papyrus in Egypt to better understand the period’s culture. This is accomplished by taking the transcribed documents and determining if they are parts of already known texts or if they are new texts. In the latter case, then beginning to examine the texts further for the purposes of identification and, presumably, further analysis.

What’s the Score at the Bodleian? also asks volunteers to help with digitizing. By providing descriptions for their 19th century piano scores collection, the volunteers help to build a searchable collection open to the public.

Another project is the Maya Decipherment effort led by Mayanist David Stuart. Using a blog to share the enormous collection of artefacts, Stuart provides a space for both professional and amateur Mayanists alike to conduct analysis on inscriptions. Maya Decipherment isn’t the only archeological project in the citizen science sphere and scistarter lists many others.

A more familiar project to the citizen science crowd may be the Old Weather historical project. This tremendously successful and award-winning Zooniverse project is an effort to digitize weather observations to assist climate researchers.

Many other projects that take on a similar model are simply referred to as something other than “citizen science.” Typically they’re described as “crowdsourced” projects, such as the Your Paintings tagging project or Stanford’s Year of the Bay mapping and annotation project and broader study of crowdsourcing in humanities research, in the digital humanities—a contentious term, but generally referring to significant critical and material engagement with technology in humanities research.

Looking to these projects provides some insight about how humanities and social science scholars are both driving and participating in models of public participation in research that resemble citizen science. Certainly some reluctance to adopt the phrase “citizen science” is reasonable, after all, the humanities especially have a very different scholarly tradition, but the relationship between the two has much to tell us. For those working from a scientific tradition, this expanded notion of citizen science projects is useful in exploring the kinds of research in which citizens might participate, what is at stake for public intellectual engagement, and what the possibilities are for educational outreach. For humanist and social scientific researchers, there is a growing body of literature and debate in citizen science that considers appropriate acknowledgments and crediting, relationships among professional and amateur researchers, and methodological concerns.

Further work to bridge the research conducted under the banner of citizen science and that conducted under the banner of crowd-sourcing in the digital humanities (pdf) offers a promising site for humanists, social scientists, and scientists to bridge the two cultures in the interest of research, teaching, and a public intellectual engagement.

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