Last week, we put out the announcement of a new project we've been slowly planning over Basecamp over the months.
We want citizen science material to be accessible in as many languages as possible. Citizen science material might mean websites of citizen science projects, their interfaces and tutorials, blog posts and newsletters; or it might mean more general written information, such as policy briefs, academic documents and news media. Most of it is available only in English. While English is very widely spoken, this does risk exluding those who don't speak it fluently. Citizen science should be accessible to all, and it should not be dominated by one demographic over another. There have been past calls to make it available in lots of languages - Egle Marija Ramanauskaite, for example, presented a poster about this at the European Citizen Science Association conference in 2016.
So, how do you go about doing this? Muki Haklay had an idea: treat such a process itself as citizen science. Gather together a community of people who want to help and to learn. Rather like a citizen science project, which has more data to process than a team of scientists can realistically process, there is more written about citizen science than any one person can translate (and, of course, hundreds of languages to translate it from and into).
Because of my past work with citizen science volunteers, I was asked to create such a community. I first spent some time learning about translation. Sadly, languages are not my strong point: I spent a year living in Spain as part of the ERASMUS scheme during my undergraduate years and deliberately avoided living with fellow English people in order to fully immerse myself, but even my Spanish is pretty poor. But that's all right. That part isn't all on me: there is plenty that I can learn. For one thing, translation goes through several steps. You need to choose how you're going to do it; for example, will you use a specialist program (there are rather a lot of those) or just Microsoft Word? Ideally, more than one person should translate a document, to ensure accuracy (most citizen science projects want more than one person to click on each galaxy, or stalled blood vessel, or penguin). Then documents need to be proofread for fluency in the new language, and scientifically fact-checked. Meanwhile, we need to choose what documents to translate, and then how to disseminate the new translations.
I gave various translation platforms a try and also got in touch with the Astronomy Translation Network. An extremely helpful, knowledgeable lady named Yukiko Shibata sent me some wonderful e-mails back: I'm very grateful to her. They have a form that asks potential volunteers about the languages they speak, the potential jobs they could do, and the area of astronomy and type of material that interests them.
Meanwhile, I was also both distracted and informed by my first stint of teaching here in my position at UCL: we are running a course on citizen science and scientific crowdsourcing (which is also available online; you're still welcome to join). I ran a couple of practicals on user experience and on community management: essentially, the subject from the citizen scientist's point of view. That reminded me of all the things a citizen scientist might need: above all, clear communication and the knowledge that their work will be useful.
My colleague Christian Nold recommended to me that I write a short plan of action for the project, which I did just before Christmas; this helped me decide on the order in which everything should happen, and highlight all the possible uncertainties, such as what might happen if nobody signs up to the project or if another one with the same intention springs up at the same time.
But there's only so much you can plan by yourself, and eventually I decided it was time to stop planning and start acting! So I wrote the first blogpost. Within a couple of days, the e-mails had trickled into my inbox. They were very kind. They said it was a fantastic idea, and they'd love to help. Then I announced this at Doing It Together Science's following regular meeting. My colleagues asked for our BioBlitz policy brief and our new video to be the first items translated, and the Waag Society, who designed this website, kindly created a new e-mail, email@example.com.
I created a mailing list and wrote the first e-mail. It was long. I welcomed everyone and thanked them for joining. I said that as soon as possible I would like to get us all off e-mails and onto some kind of discussion forum. I asked people what their favourite is. And I wrote a questionnaire, inspired by the Astronomy Translation Network's. I wanted to know:
1) What languages do you speak?
2) Are you a researcher, a citizen scientist, an interested translator, or anything else?
3) What sort of materials do you think we ought to be translating?
4) Do you have a favourite translation platform that you think we ought to use?
5) Do you have a favourite discussion platform that you think we ought to use?
6) What job would you like to do on the project - translating, proofreading, fact-checking, outreach, anything else?
7) What makes this an interesting project for you?
Most people who wanted to be on the mailing list haven't sent in answers to these, which is fair enough; they may simply wish to watch the project's progress, or may not have had time! The first few people who signed up - people who saw the post on Twitter or Facebook or the blog - were all researchers. Not that I've anything against my fellow researchers, but I was a little worried that a lot of important voices might be missing.
I did, however, receive some useful feedback. For example, I was informed in no uncertain terms that a policy brief is about the least interesting possible material to start with! So I hurriedly wrote a transcript of the video. Then I was informed by a friend who works on a large citizen science platform that they would be delighted to open their records to us. And shortly after that, I decided I'd better have the experience of doing translation myself, even if that wouldn't be my main task, and citizen science Twitter soon found someone who had written some citizen science blogs in Spanish to send me some material to try!
But then I had the idea of sending this to a science communication mailing list I'm on. They kindly approved my e-mail, and since then I've had a flood of responses - former science students, professional translators, multilingual people who simply want to help. People also e-mailed in several suggestions of organisations to contact and platforms to use that I hadn't heard of, such as the Google Translator Toolkit and a participatory translation project taking place in Manchester. I've even had an e-mail or two with suggestions about future funding - which is indeed something I'd like us to pursue in the near future. In fact, yesterday I had so many e-mails over the course of a few hours that I felt overwhelmed both by gratitude and by the sheer quantity of information, and could only do the honourable thing: staring wide-eyed at the screen, hiding and not answering them until today (sorry about that).
I've also had some fascinating answers back to the questions, and will summarise the types of answers I've had - none of the below comes from any one person:
1) We so far have speakers of English, Greek, Italian, Lithuanian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, German, Tagalog and Arabic!
2) Initially we mostly had researchers, but we've now got a variety of people - translators, science communicators, people who speak several languages and are interested, and former science researchers or students who miss science.
3) People mostly want to translate the websites and interfaces of citizen science projects - what citizen scientists will be seeing. Several of us also feel that short summaries of what the subject is, educational materials, and general reports of progress in citizen science, are important. Our next step is to make a collection of such materials!
4) Nobody has a favourite translation tool or program. I'm in the process of deciding whether we really need to tell people to use one. People should probably choose whatever method works for them best. Nevertheless, I have decided that I will soon ask professional translators to help me write some tutorials for newcomers to translation.
5) People seem to like Slack best as a platform to chat on. I personally don't like it - it's a few very long threads, so I worry that things could easily get lost. But if that's what people want, I'll do it.
6) Lots of people have been very kind and said, "I'll do whatever job's going"! Those who, like me, aren't fluent in more than one language want to help with coordination and outreach. There is a big variety of work to be done here.
7) There was a very strong feeling that science and citizen science should be accessible and inclusive to everyone, no matter where they are or what language they speak, and they want to help make this happen. Several people have also remarked that in their home country, English isn't widely spoken and/or that citizen science isn't much done, and they'd like citizen science to be made more available there.
In short, I've got an extremely long to-do list and list of things I want to know and create with others, and I'm not sure I've ever been so excited.
If you've any suggestions, questions or ideas, do please get in touch! The e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. There's no deadline. I look forward to hearing from you.