Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Citizen Science Business Model: Paid Participant

At CitSci2015 I proposed a collection of business models that support, and benefit from, the work of citizen scientists and the reasons these are so important.  For the next few months I will be explaining each one in much more depth along with the current state of the market, obstacles to expanding connections to citizen science, and unexplored niches in each market.  These are needed to both help citizen scientists reap some rewards from the value they create, as well as convince firms to invest resources in developing tools to help the entire field grow.  To everyone's mutual benefit.  

Previously: Analyzer

This Week: Paid Participant
Next: Educator

Ideal partnerships between citizen scientists and for-profit businesses have them sharing the rewards, and profits, together.  Last week we talked about Analyzer services companies can sell to help citizen scientists.  Now it's time to discuss ways for citizen scientists to get paid.  This time through the simplest method of all...as a Paid Participant.

This is exactly what it sounds like, providing cash or in-kind payments to volunteers based solely on their joining a citizen science project.  It's one of the more popular methods of rewarding citizen science volunteers and also a commonly used technique for recruiting new participants. Wildlife census projects sometimes offer people a cash stipend for hiking a particular area while cataloging the animals they see.  Other may offer a shirt or other promotional item in exchange for that same type of hike. There are also projects that offer to pay people small amounts per picture they analyze or puzzle they solve.  And archaeology projects sometimes pay participants in the form of free lunches and expenses while at dig sites. 

While we use the term "paid" I've always tried to emphasize that this does not always have to mean cash.  In-kind rewards such as free lunches, free t-shirts, or offers of discounted equipment would count as well.  The important distinction is that participants are provided "tangible" rewards.  While non-tangible rewards such as educational opportunities or civic pride are important parts of many projects, they aren't included in the "Paid Participant" discussion.

Payment can be based on a number of different variables.

  • Stipends: Some projects handle payment like a stipend providing a set amount of money for participating over a length of time.  For example, people may show up for a day-long research project in the field a State park or wildlife preserve; in return they receive a $20 bill or some free merchandise.  This is less than the minimum wage in most places (based on an 8-hour day) so nobody is getting rich from it.  But this payment does show appreciation for the person's work and can offset some of their participation costs, such as travel to/from the site, purchasing special clothing or boots due to weather extremes, or buying other types of special equipment. In a strange way you might even consider the stipends people receive for participating in clinical research as human subjects as a type of paid participation.  While payment is made once the volunteer signs up it in no way covers all the time, effort, and risk the volunteer commits to.  In fact it would usually be considered unethical to provide too high a stipend for fear of motivating people to participate for just monetary reasons.  Instead you want people participating for the many intangible benefits they also receive.  Which sounds like many citizen science projects to me. 

  • Per Task: There are actually a number of scholarly articles (such as this one) describing the benefits of using distinct "tasks" as the basis of non-paid citizen science projects.  Or, in some cases where volunteers work for free, showing the value that would be received if payment WAS being made for the work.  A great example of this is the Amazon.com Mechanical Turk system.  In the case of Mechanical Turk participants are rewarded on a per-task basis, making as much as a dollar or as little as a penny per task.  Each one is not much.  But add them up and an individual person can find themselves well rewarded for the work.  Much like many citizen science projects, Mechanical Turk develops large projects that can be broken into large numbers of small, discrete tasks (called HITs: Human Intelligence Tasks) that can't be effectively performed by computers.  These are typically very easy tasks on their own that require minimal time or effort to complete, but the large number of them in the overall project would overwhelm any individual researcher. This is similar to the premise of CitzenSort and the original GalaxyZoo project (and the eventual collection Zooniverse projects).  This similarity of these projects to Mechanical Turk is so close they were actually used as the basis for determining the economic value of Zooniverse projects in a scientific paper (click HERE for the original article).

There are two other ways projects can pay their participants that have not already been mentioned.  These have been written about much less in the academic literature and there is not as much describing them on project web pages.  Though talking with citizen science project managers I know they exist.

  • Providing Equipment and Supplies: An example of this is the CoCoRAHS (Colorado Community Rain, Hail and Snow) project measuring rainfall across the country.  One can't participate without a rain gauge, so they are given out for free to all who wish to join.  Now obviously this is not completely altruistic and is a necessity for having people participate.  But you must contrast this with the large number of projects that DON'T provide equipment to participants.  When I got into weather as a citizen science project I had to research all my equipment options and shell out my own money; in this case participants get the equipment for free!
  • Raffles and Prizes: Payment does not have to be made to every person equally.  As a way to save money organizers may choose to offer money through raffles and prizes open to all who participate. An investment is still required for the prize but only a few need to be purchased.  And some people end up winning and being rewarded quite handsomely through it. There's just no guarantee they will win.

Going back to our initial premise, all business models should benefit both citizen scientists and for-profit businesses in a mutually beneficial manner.  In the case of Paid Participants the direct beneficiary is definitely the citizen scientists.  But it helps businesses and professional researchers as a motivation and recruitment tool.  In other words, the value paid participants provide is very high compared to other options such as hiring professional technicians or relying on unpaid volunteers.  It's also a reminder to not just look at the costs of a business model, but also all the benefits. Something we will see more of as this series continues. 


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