A Year of Science Gossiping

On March 3rd, sciencegossip.org turns 1! And what a first year it has been.

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As a historian, I have been trained to look at books and images and to say something about them that is relevant to other historians. But – and this is my confession – when it comes to doing history with citizen science/humanities I don’t have any training or expertise. And this is what has made this first year so interesting for me – I’ve learnt so much from the 8000+ community that has participated in classifying historical images, and it has been changing the way I think about researching and writing history. But more on that in a future blog, for now, let’s celebrate all we have done!

So what have we achieved over the last year?

We’ve classified just under 135,000 pages from 19th-century journals. Which means that we have completely classified 13 journals and are approximately 90% away from classifying three more.

To put this in perspective – a very diligent historian, working on his or her own for 3-4 years might be able to do thorough research into 4-5 periodicals over a 10-year run. You lot have shown just how important working as a community can be.

What’s more is this means not just an increase in productivity, but new thoughts and ideas a solitary historian would not be able to come up with on their own.

For instance, we now have new information on female illustrators, created a comprehensive list of contributors, and even made an amazing alphabet – all driven by the work and interest of the Talk community.

We’ve also been gaining some attention from within the history of science community. We were shortlisted for the British Society for the History of Science newly founded Ayrton prize, for outstanding web projects.

Viewpoint Scan

For me – as I hope for the rest of the community – it has really been an amazing year. But, we are hoping it is just a taste of what is yet to come.

What is to come for sciencegossip?

To start we have 5 new periodicals for everyone to whet their appetite. These include a new journal on microscopy, 2 on botany, and 2 new journals focusing on geology.

Over the upcoming year, the data on the currently classified journals will be used to inform a new understanding of what it meant to participate in 19th-century science, drawing and journal publication. While this will, in part, take the form of academic articles and ultimately a book – we are also planning a collaboration with digital humanities experts such as Stanford University’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis – which will help us visualise the data you all have collected into an interactive platform.

Most important of all, however, is that from here on in we would like you, the community, to take the helm over the content and direction of sciencegossip. Up to now, the research team has decided what periodicals will go up, and what questions will be asked of the data. So far, this has worked well – but we don’t want to hog the fun! If you find or know of a historical periodical or book that is on the BHL archive, then let’s make a decision as a community over what the next uploads are going to be. Let’s also make new hash tags and discussion threads over what you find most interesting in the documents and images. What the content and research of the website looks like in March 2017 is really up to you!

Because, after all, this is citizen humanities – which means the community is in control, not the individual.

We met our Science Gossip challenge!

Thanks to all those who took part in the Science Gossip challenge! In the last 2 weeks you contributed ~110,000 new classifications to the data, and completed approximately 21,000 pages! Talk was very active too, which is great. A number of volunteers discovered some great images including:

Beautiful maps of Wiltshire – http://talk.sciencegossip.org/#/subjects/ASC0000oto

A full page plate full of dragonflies http://talk.sciencegossip.org/#/subjects/ASC000027r

Facsimiles of notices from the 1604 plague – http://talk.sciencegossip.org/#/subjects/ASC0000rfb

And some lovely looking photographs of slime mold! http://talk.sciencegossip.org/#/subjects/ASC0003hww

Not only did we meet our challenge goal of 100k classifications, we were able to complete 3 of the 5 new journals that were uploaded earlier this month:  Botany Miscellany (1830–1833), Journal of Botany: Being a Second Series of the Botanical Miscellany (1834–1842), and London Journal of Botany (1842–1848).  Two of the older journals are very close to being done – Wiltshire archaeological and natural history magazine. (99% complete) and Hardwicke’s science-gossip : an illustrated medium of interchange and gossip for students and lovers of nature. (82% complete).

You can also dip in and see some of the data generated over the project’s lifetime, check out http://explore.sciencegossip.org/. Here you’ll find pages displaying the aggregated and individual assessments made by volunteers. All of this has been anonymized, but it’s still interesting to see how many people picked out particular keywords.

More content is on the way so stay tuned at www.sciencegossip.org

Thanks so much for all your hard work,
Trish, Geoff, Jim, Victoria and everyone on the Science Gossip Team

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New journals available in Science Gossip: Let’s celebrate by classifying all of the data, old and new!

The Science Gossip team recently uploaded five new journals that were established and edited by William Jackson Hooker*, founding director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, and one of the most important botanists of the nineteenth century. These include:

Botany Miscellany (1830–1833), Journal of Botany: Being a Second Series of the Botanical Miscellany (1834–1842), London Journal of Botany (1842–1848) and Hooker’s Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany (1849–1857). The Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club (1868 to present) is the longest running ‘amateur’ journal for microscopical societies. The society, which was established in 1865, came directly out of the community developed through the natural history periodical Science Gossip – with founding members including the publisher Robert Hardwicke and editor and mycologist Mordecai Cubitt Cooke.

Hookers Journal 2

In addition to the new journals, there are approximately 24,000 pages still to be classified between the five original journals: Gardeners Magazine and Register or Rural & Domestic Improvement (23% complete), Gardener’s Chronicle (2% complete), Hardwicke’s Science Gossip (77% complete), the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London (86% complete), Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine (96% complete).

With your help we can identify the wealth of illustrations locked in these wonderful Victorian natural history journals, and make them available for researchers and any interested parties for years to come!

** Free access to the Hooker article was provided by The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a research and publishing project of Oxford University and Oxford University Press. It is available until 30 November, 2015.

Decoration, Ornamentation, Illustration or why we classify on Science Gossip

In addition to furthering research, one of the benefits of classifying on Science Gossip is the chance to see some fantastic Victorian illustrations. Just because an image was intended for scientific purposes, did not preclude it from being an aesthetic object: there was plenty of overlap between scientific and artistic depiction in the Victorian period.

Background Bird

Some of the most immediately eye-catching illustrations are those with brilliant colour schemes. It took less than a week for volunteers to find the brightly coloured illustration used for the background of the project, as covered by a Daily Zooniverse post.

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However, there are a wealth of other coloured images in the pages that constitute Science Gossip, including everything from #graphic_microscopy to #heraldry, and quite a bit in between.

Graphic Microscophy

While many illustrators and engravers used flashes of colour for decoration and to portray important scientific information, skilled illustrators working in black and white were also able to capture the natural beauty of their subjects. From the Amazon Rainforest and squirrels to some rather intriguing depictions of walruses, citizen scientists and professional sketch artists captured the fine details of the natural world in their depictions.

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As awe-inspiring as these illustrations are, some Victorians felt that they paled in comparison to the real world. J.G. Wood declares in his Common Objects of the Microscope (1861) that ‘no pen, pencil, or brush, however skillfully wielded, can reproduce the soft, glowing radiance, the delicate pearly translucency, or the flashing effulgence of living and ever-changing light [. . .] whose wondrous beauty astonishes and delights the eye, and fills the heart with awe and adoration.’ Even with this in mind, many of the warm and stunning illustrations that volunteers are finding are, as user yshish noted about the botanical drawing below, “Beautiful!”

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Science Gossip classifiers have also discovered a wealth of decorative elements within the pages of scientific periodicals. While these decorated capitals and banners are not considered illustrations for the purposes of Science Gossip classifications, they liven up otherwise text-heavy pages and show how Victorian scientists appreciated a bit of whimsy and ornamentation, just like their predecessors in print and manuscript in the centuries before the birth of citizen science.

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There are plenty more illustrations to be found and classified on Science Gossip, and with your help we can continue to bring them to light!

-by Frank Vitale IV

The Citizen Science Market

As one recent Daily Zooniverse post mentioned, Science Gossip users have been collecting some fascinating examples of 19th century #ads mixed in with scientific illustrations. While these advertisements are not the types of illustrations that the Science Gossip research team is focused on, and thus might seem unrelated, they highlight some of the intriguing connections between commercialism and citizen science in the Victorian period.

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Some of the most common advertisements found so far by Science Gossip volunteers include segments selling microscopes and slides, mineral and fossil collections, plants and bulbs, “hand cameras,” and binoculars. As various industries grew during the Victorian period, many scientific tools became easier and cheaper to obtain. Purchasing these tools from sellers advertising in magazines, including Hardwicke’s Science Gossip, was one way citizen scientists of the past could participate in the scientific discussions and discoveries of their day. Horticultural builders also frequented the pages of periodicals such as The Gardener’s Chronicle, showing that some readers went so far as installing specialist buildings with newly devised hot water heating systems to support their own scientific interests!

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Victorian advertisements were often directed specifically at women, showing how gender played an important role in 19th century citizen science. Aside from announcements for dresses and soaps, magazines such as The Gardeners’ Chronicle included lists of books for purchase aimed specifically towards women, including Mrs. Loudon’s Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden and High-Class Kitchen Gardening. These advertisements suggest that women were reading scientific periodicals and engaging with the wider network of citizen scientists. They also evidence gender bias in the types of science women might be expected to perform.

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Aside from scientific advertisements, the magazines in the Science Gossip project include some fascinating pieces selling everything from camomile pills and spectacles to life insurance and cocoa powder. Thanks to the help of our volunteers, these and other advertisements are coming to the surface and finding new life in the Zooniverse community, even if they will ultimately be excluded from the research data set. Be sure to classify these ads as non-images, but feel free to tag them using #ads on Science Gossip Talk and keep the conversation going!

-by Frank Vitale IV

Media Mentions

  • Scientific American: ‘Zooniverse: Science Gossip’
  • University of Leicester press office: ‘From Citizen Science to Citizen Humanities – 19th Century history in the digital age’, July 15, 2015
  • Library Journal: ‘Wisdom of the Crowd: Digital Collections’, by Matt Enis, July 13, 2015
  • The Nature Conservancy blog (Cool Green Science):  ‘Science Gossip: Victorian Science Journals’, by Lisa Feldkamp, July 7, 2015
  • Outbound Adventurer blog: Geeky treks from around the globe: ‘The Absolute Best Citizen Science Adventures’, by Tara, April 25, 2015
  • Prolific Oaktree blog: ‘Science Gossip – Overview of Citizen Science Project to Classify Drawings’, March 19, 2015
  • The Persistent Scientist blog: ‘Science Gossip’, March 15, 2015
  • Popular Science blog: ‘Citizen Science Goes Meta’, by Chandra Clarke, March 13, 2015
  • Pukka Plants, March 11, 2015
  • The Cheat Sheet’10 Fun Tech Products You Don’t Want to Miss This Week’, by Jess Bolluyt, March 10, 2015.
  • Nerd in the Brain blog: Science Fun: Gossip in the Zooniverse, March 6, 2015
  • H-Net (Humanities and Social Sciences Online): ‘Zooniverse project calls on the public to reveal Victoria natural history, by Berris Charnley, March 5, 2015.
  • BHL blog: ‘Zooniverse Releases Science Gossip’, March 4, 2015
  • Young Thinkers Guild blog (no date)

Citizen Scientist’s Algorithm Helps Science Gossip Team to Reduce Text-only Pages

Thanks to the efforts of an active Zooniverse volunteer and the Science Gossip project team, users can now focus on the beautiful illustrations found in Science Gossip’s 19th century natural history periodicals and spend less time marking pages with no illustrations. The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) had developed algorithms for filtering out pages without images in a previously-related project called Art of Life, where project partners from the Indianapolis Museum of Art Lab developed 4 algorithms. The two deemed most useful were based on 1) coordinate metadata from ABBYY software and 2) contrast properties of the pages. The Science Gossip project team had considered using these algorithms to filter pages before uploading to the Zooniverse site but decided against it because it was surmised users might like to view all pages in a journal for contextual reference. After the launch in March 2015, it became clear many Science Gossip users wanted the team to reduce the numbers of pages without illustrations because they didn’t want to spend their time on these types of pages when the project was really about illustrations.

An active volunteer, Briana Harder (aka Quia on Zooniverse), prodded the Science Gossip team to consider using automated methods for filtering and even put together an algorithm herself for the team to test against its existing algorithms. Briana’s algorithm picks out chunks of images and if the background is too variable sometimes picks out text. When comparing the accuracy of the 3 algorithms together, Briana’s and the BHL ABBYY algorithm performed well with less than a 1% margin of error. Contrast performed poorly and Briana and the team deemed it was not useful for filtering. In the end it was decided to just utilize the ABBYY algorithm since the pages had already been processed by that algorithm and it would be much quicker to implement.

The filter was applied in mid-May. Since then the number of pages without illustrations has been reduced considerably, hopefully resulting in a more satisfying experience for our users. Thanks go out to Briana and the folks on the team who worked on this task. When asked what her motivations were for contributing to Science Gossip and other Zooniverse projects Briana explained:

My involvement with Science Gossip is an adventure in serendipity. Darren McRoy, Zooniverse’s community builder, gave me a nudge to go check out some of the newer Zoo projects, among others I ended up on Floating Forests, and in one of their blog posts, they asked for help in improving their pipeline for selecting coastline images for classifications. […] I wrote an algorithm that improved the pipeline […]

Briana’s work on Floating Forests led that team to reprocess their data and dramatically speed up the project. While this reprocessing was underway, Science Gossip launched a beta test. Briana noticed that there were a lot of text-only pages in this project—another opportunity for an algorithm!

I thought ‘There has to be a good way to filter out all these pages, text recognition is a well developed field…I bet I could write something to filter these so the project can be more efficient.’

And she was absolutely right –Thank you Briana and all Zooniverse users who go above and beyond to help us improve our projects! The collaborative spirit of this community continues to benefit all of us in ways we never expected. We hope everyone is benefiting from the reduced noise in the Science Gossip dataset and would love feedback from our users on the impact of the filtered pages.

Trish Rose-Sandler, Data Analyst, BHL and Data Projects Coordinator, Missouri Botanical Garden