I met today with Aaron Price, who’s with the American Association of Variable Star Observers, a group celebrating a hundred years of gathering data from amateurs and professionals about variable stars. AAVSO has an archive of over 19 million variable star observations. Aaron is particularly interested in enabling and encouraging amateurs to become increasingly involved in the scientific process, ultimately collaboratively writing publishable articles. (I’m putting this my way, not his, so don’t blame him for my infelicities.)

We talked a bit about who should be called a scientist. My own view is that if you have this discussion without any context, then you look to paradigmatic scientists — works in a lab (perhaps), designs and runs experiments, formulates hypotheses, has academic credentials, wears a lab coat. In such cases, when there is no actual need driving the question, arguments about edge cases can’t be resolved. On the other hand, if something hangs on the question — does the person get funding, get invited to address a conference, is allowed access to equipment, get to claim a particular standing in an argument, etc. — then the question is more likely to be settle-able. For that reason, most discussions about whether citizen scientists are scientists (or, are “citizen journalists” journalists, etc.) should be addressed (in my opinion) first by asking, “Why do you ask?”

This seems to me to be an illustration of the way everything (well, almost) is becoming a network. In the old days, when science was a lot like publishing, the line between scientist and layperson was fairly well (but certainly imperfectly) drawn. In a networked world, it’s not simply a matter of redrawing lines, so that now citizen scientists are inside the Circle of Science. Rather, the nature of the lines is different. All members of a network are connected. The question is the nature of the connection, and that can change instantly based on interests, skills, credentials, and the project underway. The old lines disconnected; the new ones connect. And that makes it far more difficult to come up with persistent answers to questions like “Who is a scientist?” or “Who is a journalist?”

Often, in a networked world, it’s better not to insist on an answer. More important than deciding exactly who is inside the charmed circle is figuring out how to make the network smarter — which almost always means extending the network as far as it can possibly go.