Teaching to empower students as public, open and citizen scientists

Students pursuing a bachelor or master degree develop both labor market skills for a information and computer-based career, and learn to do science. Not all go on to be scientists. It would seem that those that do not, have no impact on scientific knowledge. They took tests and wrote papers in order to earn their degree. The test results and papers are only for their instructor’s eyes and maybe an occasional parent or other student.

It could be different.

  1. Science is an act of knowledge production
  2. Bachelor and master students have and develop useful knowledge
  3. Teaching them to share their knowledge and collaborate in knowledge production:
    • improves collective scientific knowledge
    • leads to a feeling of empowerment and utility among the students
    • creates ideal-type citizen scientists

Starts with teaching

In any given course in any particular discipline, students are taught to do science as a practice. This includes knowledge or ideas about the world; empirical evidence gathered through participation, observation or experimentation; and techniques to maximize the accuracy, efficacy and reliability of their knowledge and ideas. The students’ own work on assignments or theses is a form of ‘training’, and an instructor then checks or grades their learning. If they are privileged they get constructive feedback, and if they are highly self-motivated they actually read the feedback and incorporate it into their future work.

Students are generally aware that their work is for their instructor’s eyes only. At least in my experience, they cannot imagine their work shaping science or public knowledge. They thus have little extrinsic motivation to do more than what the instructor asks of them.

What if the instructor asks them to change the world outside the classroom in some way?

We, as instructors, are teaching students to produce reliable and critical knowledge. They should get a high mark if the work is deemed to be high quality. Why then does the entirety of their learning and knowledge production end as a forgotten file in a folder as a relic of some semester past? Why don’t they share some of that knowledge? I bet if they thought that their knowledge was valuable and useful beyond degree acquisition, they would be stoked.

Hampered by institutionalized beliefs and practices

A common argument against bachelor and master students trying to disseminate their work is that it is not high enough quality to compete with work from doctoral and post-doctoral researchers. In particular, they have not had enough time to dig deep into a body of literature on their topic of interest and their methodological skills may still be quite underdeveloped. They would probably be ‘wasting’ their time pursuing a journal publication or even a publicly disseminated working paper.

I agree. This points at the root of the problem. Publication-based science. Science as we know it has a rewards system where publications are treated as far more valuable than anything else scientists produce. This is particularly acute in the social sciences where scientific research rarely leads to tech or apps with private market value. When publications are the ‘currency of the trade’, academics, universities, editors, students, even policymakers prioritize publications and citations to those publications as the metric for judging the quality of scientific research. As such, scientists have maximum incentive to produce publications above all else.

Now, bachelor and maybe master students are generally unaware of the severity of this publish-or-perish plague that infects the very spirit of science. But like a fish that is unaware of the properties of the water it lives in, the students are deeply affected by the polluted nature of the academic norms in which they matriculate. How many times has a teacher told a bachelor student that they should submit their term paper to a high impact journal? How often are readings in scientific courses not from journal articles or books? A taskforce in sociology specifically recommended that students read and comment on books and journal articles because this is the ‘best’ type of academic knowledge for them to learn.

Student-citizen opportunities to shape public knowledge

With available technologies and new ideas about what constitutes meaningful knowledge, students can have a great impact on science; both now and into the future. Podcasts, blogs, vlogs, Youtube channels and many other forms of social media communication are consumed in high volumes across members of the public, and among students and scientists.

Therefore, when possible, I assign students the task of making a contribution to public knowledge and/or open science instead of writing a term paper. It seems better for all parties involved, and involves more parties because it could reach the public at large. I recently put this into practice in my course, “Open Science in Social Sciences: Crises, Controversies and Change” which I taught as an invited guest lecturer at the University of Zurich (UZH) (syllabus).

Wikipedia: knowledge now

Creating or editing a Wikipedia page where knowledge is lacking or does not exist at all, is a fantastic way to engage in public open science. Firstly, surveys report that more than a three-quarters and up to 90% of students use Wikipedia in their course research, at least in some English-speaking samples. Second, shaping knowledge immediately; seeing one’s own contributions appear on a public knowledge-platform is exciting and feels empowering. Third, knowledge is improved, in some cases much needed knowledge, like that which gives a voice, forum or contribution for underrepresented people or societies.

Three students in my course used Wikipedia to make contributions to public knowledge.

One of the students first edited and then created a Wikipedia page in Ukrainian, based on his Bachelor Thesis topic “A Theory of Generations”. He pointed out in class that most of the information on this topic, and knowledge accessed by Ukranians in general, is in Russian. Given the history of Russian hegemony in Ukraine, having more Ukranian resources promotes a Ukranian language and identity; in other words, promotes knowledge that is valuable to most Ukranians.

Wikipedia Ukrainian language page on “Theories of Generations“, created by Ernest Huk

Additionally, this particular academic topic is contested and misunderstood in the literature according to this student. He points out that the former page focused only on one theory, when in fact there are many. Thus, he pointed out that before his edits and page renaming, “Ukrainian users of Wikipedia, by looking through the [former] article Theory of Generations, would be not informed adequately at least and misinformed at most, as Strauss-Howe generational theory is just one of the many other theories in this domain (yet one of the most controversial).”

Another student has a extracurricular passion for wild flora. There is a class of plants whose native habitats are pastures and fields. These ‘pasture flora’ (Ackerbegleitflora in German), as the student pointed out, are “often rare plants that would find suitable living conditions in pastures but are conflicted with the threat of economic means that increase productivity in agriculture. Some of the rarest plants in Central Europe are found in this class.”

Wikipedia German-language page on “pasture flora” edited by Linus Signer

At least in German-speaking Wikipedia, there was no page on this topic at the outset. In fact, Wikipedia redirected the students search to Unkraut (weeds), reinforcing the public misunderstanding of this class of wild flora as undesirable or economically-inefficient intruders in a pasture or field. He later discovered an existing page on Segetalflora which is a related class that has overlap with ‘pasture flora’. This points out that knowledge on certain topics can go by different names or be cross-classified, a problem that requires more discussion and Wikipedia users to resolve. Therefore, he elected to significantly expand the existing Segetalflora page, rather than make a new page with information about Ackerbegleitflora, so that everything was in one place, including discussions about differences, conservation and utility.

During our course in fall-winter of 2021, many exciting things related to open science were taking place at UZH. For example, the university created an explicit open science policy. Moreover, there was an open science week with speakers and, of course, our open science course. One student noticed that much information about the open science happenings was missing from the UZH Wikipedia page and decided to make it his project to add it.

The ‘Open Science‘ section of the University of Zurich German-language Wikipedia page edited by Kerim Lengwiler

A major limitation to the open science movement is simply a lack of academic awareness of the issues and their solutions. Wikipedia provides a platform to disseminate such knowledge. Thanks to this student’s research and edits to the German-language page, I was easily able to update the English-language version of in tandem. We hope users can follow our lead and update the French and Italian versions as well.

Youtube – unlimited public science possibilities

Youtube is now outpacing Wikipedia as a student’s ‘go to’ for scientific information and especially for science communication. Internet searches for ‘how to’ or ‘information about’ now seem as likely to return Youtube or other short instructional videos as they are text-based entries (depending on cookies, browser, settings, and etc of course). Videos also give a voice to research subjects that cannot easily be expressed via written language. As long as participants consent, students can interview their subjects and post a video on Youtube – an act that requires only minimal technical skill and can be done with free or cheap software.

Another student in my course elected to contribute to knowledge on the topic colorism – discrimination based on skin color. Unlike racism, the student found this topic was far less present in academic discussion, at least based on her internet searches. Her impression from a previous course and her searches, was that this topic was mostly used in reference to the United States, but less so in the German-speaking countries’ contexts. In fact, she pointed out that to here it seemed like many people did not think colorism existed in Switzerland or Germany. Therefore, for her project, she conducted an interview with a person whose parents are Asian and European, to understand if and what types of color awareness or colorism this person experienced personally or in media and marketing.

An interview with an ethnically Swiss-Asian participant about colorism by
Nora Melanie Vetsch
Student open science activism

The opening of science and increase in reliability and transparency of knowledge for academic and public consumption requires more than a handful of citizen scientists active on social media and Wikipedia. Many closed and un-reliable methods are taught as part of the pathology of science. Instructors and students alike are generally unaware that the science they promote is potentially unreliable. This is another way of saying that they have not yet been exposed to the core information of the open science movement. Thus, changes at the curricular and institutional level are necessary to promote this awareness and to foster change.

Three students in my course elected to develop strategies to shape curricula for university and school students so that it fosters awareness of open, ethical science practices.

One student felt that herself and her peers were generally uninformed about open science both in and outside of UZH. Her idea for changing this was to create a student led social media initiative at the University. As this is nothing that could be achieved or even approved in a few months, her project was an action plan for the creation of this service. Firstly, it would entail the creation of a Student Open Science Organization, that among other things would maintain social media accounts where they posted important open science information and resources. This would require several layers of bureaucratic approval and liaising with the Open Science Office.

An excerpt of the open science at UZH social media action plan by Isabella Ferrera

Another student sought to communicate and potentially convince a primary methods professor in her area of Educational Science to incorporate open science into her courses. The idea would be that such a strategy could be deployed across other disciplines, and that her area was a test case to develop it. This required first developing persuasive reasons that could be shared in an open and friendly manner with a professor. Like many progressive universities, UZH has resources just waiting to be taken advantage of, a great realization of the student.

The Open Science Committee homepage at UZH, available for policy, communication and supporting curriculum development – for example Anastasiia Kurmann’s efforts to shape Educational Science courses so that they teach open science.

The professor responded to the student’s requests and agreed to add open science topics to her seminar plan, agreed with the students claims about the value of teaching open science and to specifically promote open data and FAIR principles as she teaches about qualitative data collection and evaluation; according to an exchange with the student.

Another student volunteers her time at a Zurich Community Center (Gemeinschaftszentrum). As the student points out, these centers, “offer space to work, play, learn, meet other people or participate in neighbourhood projects.” The student wanted to test if open science is a topic that adolescent children might understand or be interested in. Therefore, she first gained their interest and consent and organized a lesson at the Center. She used another resource of the UZH, the Kinderuniversität (Children’s University) as a protocol or concept for the adolescents to understand open science. The Kinderuniversität is specifically designed to support children in searching for answers and explanations of phenomena and, as the student points out, “serves as a good example to illustrate how science can be made accessible to all.”

Diellza Ismailji teaching adolescents at a Zurich Community Center about open science

Using this test case, the student was able to develop a curriculum for future courses for children and adolescents to discover and understand the concept of open science and why it is important. This guide includes resources that the children can directly interact with such as Wikipedia (that they can even edit this!), Blinde Kuh, Google Scholar, how to find and use a library and how to register for free at the UZH Children’s University.

Concluding thoughts

Public science is often practiced in the social sciences and involves researchers engaging with a local community to help provide inputs into their own efforts to address their own identified problems and priorities as a community. At international universities, bachelor and master students are less likely to be from the local community, are only staying there temporarily, and may face ethno-linguistic barriers to engaging in public social science locally. However, they can still have dramatic impacts on knowledge affecting to their home communities or countries – remotely. That is the beauty of an internet of knowledge, it only requires online access not physical presence.

Something else to keep in mind is that replacing a traditional term paper with a project to impact public knowledge and/or open science is not realistic in all course types. For example a broad introduction to open science across disciplines, like my course, makes it relatively easy for students to chose any topic and use it to contribute to public knowledge. In a course that is very theoretical and narrow, for example critical Marxism or history of the Holy Roman Empire, student learning might be maximized if they write a conventional essay based on reading of the literature that proves they have mastered a well-rehearsed topic. If asked to make a contribution to knowledge specifically in these areas they might struggle to find things to add to Wikipedia or find that there are already seemingly unlimited public resources. “Might”, then again might not. There are often opportunities to engage technology or do things in different languages.

Ultimately, when students feel they are doing something more than just earning a credential, ticking a box, or trying to maximize their grades, they become more likely to engage the material. If they think their term paper might actually contribute to local or global communities’ knowledge base, conservation efforts, capacity to address underprivileged students and etc., they are naturally inclined to do higher quality work and develop a sense of empowerment and satisfaction. These are bases of self-knowledge and fulfillment that they will hopefully carry with them into the future and stay motivated to impact public knowledge as scientists in academic or citizen scientists working in any job.