Calling all Zoo-ites! Want free access to relevant scientific journal articles?

… Then tell us so!

Why I ❤ Citizen Science

The Sunspotter volunteers have been working tirelessly at classifying all of our sunspot data, and it shows! We are already near 250,000 classifications, making this dataset around 70% completed. After this one is done, we will be releasing a  new dataset that includes over 200,000 sunspot group images, and much more meta data.

Left: a sunspot group magnetogram near the edge of the solar disk. Right: the de-projected sunspot group image, performed using a stereographic de-projection.

Also, we have been experimenting with ways to ‘de-project’ the data so that sunspot groups near the edge or ‘limb’ of the Sun do not appear squashed due to foreshortening- but, more on that when we launch the new dataset…

While working on this project, our team has had the privilege of interacting with some of the Sunspotter volunteers. If you haven’t tried it yet, pop over to and give us a shout! The volunteers taking advantage of Talk have been asking us some fascinating questions about the science behind Sunspotter, why the data looks the way it does, and about our ideas for how the data will be analysed later on. Honestly, it has provoked us to think much more deeply about this project than we would have otherwise.

I think that this is one of the hidden benefits of starting a citizen science project: your grandad’s/grandma’s data analysis algorithm is no longer a lifeless automaton. Now, it is a group of people that can provide you with amazing feedback on the work!

The Cursed Pay-Wall

Over the course of interacting with volunteers on Talk, there have been many discussions about the science behind Sunspotter where a specific research paper came up in the conversation. Unfortunately, many solar and space-physics researchers have not yet discovered the likes of, where you can upload a ‘pre-print’ manuscript of your science journal paper for everyone to read for free. So, often when a Sunspotter volunteer goes to check out a specific paper (perhaps by using the astrophysics-paper search engine, adsabs), they are hit with a ‘Pay-Wall’. If you have not encountered this yet, it occurs when an individual tries to access a science paper on-line, using a computer that is not on a university, research laboratory, or library campus (that has access to the given journal). Often the publisher requires a fee of ~$30 to access a single paper!

It is my personal opinion (and the opinion of many others) that at the very least, the general public (non-working scientists) should be able to freely access any scientific research paper in which the work was paid for by public funding. The vast majority of research is paid for by public money, but the majority of scientific papers published today are not Open Access. On the bright side, there is a growing movement to make science fundamentally freely accessible for everyone.

That said, when a research paper comes up in a Sunspotter conversation, that is not openly accessible, I have taken to emailing the author directly to request that they upload their paper to arXiv to make it available for free. Furthermore, I have begun to email the main astrophysics journal publishers to request that they provide open access to volunteers of citizen science projects. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) has already responded very positively to our request, and is working to provide such access! Furthermore, the folks at Zooniverse got the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) to agree make all citizen science-based research in their journals automatically open-access! Cheers to AGU and MNRAS!

These journals are clearly thinking ahead, and hopefully the other journals will see the light soon!

To help us in our mission of making science more open (especially for citizen science volunteers), please vote in our poll above, to declare your interest (or disinterest) in free access to journal papers. If this is an issue that Zoo-ites feel strongly about, we would like to know. For one thing publishers will take our requests more seriously if we can show that there is substantial support.

Again, we at Sunspotter really appreciate all the time, effort, and interest that you volunteers have given us!


About Dr. Paul A. Higgins

I am a postdoctoral research fellow in the Astrophysics Research Group at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. Currently I am a visiting researcher at LMSAL in Palo Alto, CA. I am investigating the causes of solar eruptions. To do this I use image processing and data mining techniques to study the evolution of sunspot groups as they are born, cross the solar disk, producing flares and coronal mass ejections, and then quietly decay and fade away.

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