People power … crowdsourcing for science


I am a keen albeit largely unknowing participant in crowdsourcing. I do it almost every day, many times a day. It seems I just can’t get enough. And you are probably the same.  Of course I am alluding to the use of search engines, particularly useful when attempting to glean some degree of understanding from almost incomprehensible journal articles. While you are happily tapping away flitting from site to site, your movements are tracked and fed back to ‘X’ within a process called data-mining; information which can be used to
to modify existing systems, such as online ad. words. In essence you are ‘involuntarily’ contributing to crowdsourcing.  But perhaps this is not such a good example, as I think the concept of crowdsourcing has developed much more positive connotations than it possibly had when the phrase was first coined. So let’s rewind a little….

Crowd + Outsourcing = Crowdsourcing

‘Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.’  Jeff Howe


Crowdsourcing is certainly not a new phenomena eventhough the term was only coined in a 2005 online article by Wired Magazine editor, Jeff Howe. One of the best known historical examples is the development and compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. An open call was made to the public for contributions to identify all the words in the English language, and ‘provide example quotations of their usages for each one’. Over a period of 70 years over 6 million submissions were received! While this involved pen, paper and postage stamps most crowdsourcing today is initiated and conducted using the internet as the key information-sharing medium.

More contemporaneously in 2009 Iceland turned to crowdsourcing amongst its citizenry to write a new constitution.

And the internet itself largely remains relevant from crowdsourcing as millions of people contribute content. Wikipedia, from where I sourced the example of the Oxford English Dictionary, is the poster child for this form of crowdsourcing – ‘wisdom of the crowd’ –  but which is not without its flaws. I had not known until very recently (when I finally bothered to google it) the term ‘wiki’ literally means, ‘A Web site developed collaboratively by a community of users, allowing any user to add and edit content’…. IE Crowdsourcing!

One of the key ideas behind crowdsourcing is simply inviting the more people to work on a project or problem will lead to more rapid and creative outcomes – and usually cheaper if not free.

Crowdsourcing is also providing exciting opportunities for the science community to tap into the time, intellect and funding of the greater public. In this context crowdsourcing can be known as Citizen Science. A direct form of science crowdsourcing is data collection in the field. A local example is the Atlas of Living Australia .

Community organiser and contributor Libby Hepburn reflected, ‘technology has come to the point where the public can get involved in science. With your digital camera, you can make a valid record, which a scientist can then confirm. And by getting the public involved, we’re covering far more than scientists could do on their own.‘ (

For Science researchers, crowdsourcing can also involve outsourcing hundreds of hours of data processing saving them time and money and producing multiple unique scientific results which may range from ‘accidental’ individual discoveries to ‘those using classifications that depend on the input of everyone who’s visited the site’ . Major crowdsourcing proponent, Zooniverse ( calls it ‘serendipitous discovery’, which is explained as a ‘natural consequence of exposing data to large numbers of users, and is something that is very difficult to program into automatic routines’. This is in contrast to the scenario of ‘distributed computing’ where a volunteer doesn’t have to do anything but let their computers run data when it would normally be idle.

I am interested in the potential of the crowd to brainstorm ideas; either to solve a particular problem or to identify subjects for research which I see as another key form of ‘community’ building (within and without the Science research field), sharing knowledge, experience and judgement. One example I came across invited readers to ‘Think of this post as an experiment in open review of a pre-experiment hypothesis. Keen to hear your thoughts!’ in seeking input/feedback about a research proposal.

A creative and wildly popular example of successful crowdsourcing for scientific research was developed by the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science with the Department of Biochemistry. The online community was invited to play Foldit; an ‘online puzzle video game’ about protein folding. It is a bit longwinded to explain properly and so I have attached a brief video from one of the creators, Adrien Treuille. The game creators, however, were fascinated to see the online conttributors sharing experience and learning together to improve outcomes (game results) which eventually resulted in the worst human-contributed result being better than the best computer generated contribution.


(A more detailed analysis of the project presented by Adrien Treuille, called ‘Crowdsourcing science: 10 reasons to crowdsource science’ can be found on youtube  Duration: 1hr)

Crowdsourcing as Citizen Science

Crowdsourcing can also be seen as a significant tool to opening up science to the general public, albeit mainly online, and in many cases actively engaging them in projects as contributors. Under the umbrella of citizen science, the University of South Australia’s Barbara Hardy Institute under the branding of ‘Citizen Science’ has utilised the public capacity to collect data in the field for several major projects including the ‘2012 Great Koala Count’, and ‘Bring us your bugs’.

‘Citizen science is a research methodology where scientists partner with the public to conduct scientific research.’


This form of crowdsourcing is also about developing positive relationships between the scientists (and university) and the public and key to this is conferring a sense of ownership of the research to the community. Importantly this type of outreach work while also serving an important research purpose engages a great variety of people and is particularly accessible and appealing to children. The university project group observe, “Citizen Science involves the participation of the wider community (particularly non-scientists) in scientific projects. Proponents of Citizen Science, when listing its benefits, usually begin with how it enables extensive data collection. Indeed, this benefit is considerable; but it is the interaction between scientists and the community, and the ability for projects to inform both groups, that are perhaps the most exciting outcomes of this approach.”

Zooniverse: ‘While the primary goal of our projects is to produce academic research, by their very nature they are also outreach projects. As it involves our volunteers directly in the process of research, citizen science is a powerful tool for both formal and informal education.’  (


Sketchnote by Perrin Ireland from ScienceOnline 2012


A promising off-shoot of crowdsourcing is crowdfunding and probably something which one wouldn’t think could be transferred to science but it has although initially only for smaller projects. Crowdfunding entails putting out an open call for research funding and there are now many websites which act as mediators between the researcher and potential funders, such as,   Other researchers have gone straight to the public like ?   Overall, the results have been positive for smaller

projects, particularly in light of the difficulty many researchers have to secure even minor amounts of funding which can be all important to complete research and have the results published – critical to a career in research.

An interview by ‘Masala Skeptic’ (posted on late last year) entitled ‘Crowdsourcing Science’ featured collaborating research scientists setting out to find crowdsourced funding for their research project. The interview provides some interesting insight into the potential as well as the practicalities of this approach.

Interviewee and biotechnology researcher Ethan Pearlman expresses a common perception:

‘The system of funding science right now needs an overhaul. We are still using archaic and inefficient methods to fund basic research. Last year, only about twenty percent of all grants that were submitted to the NIH (National Institute of Health) and to the NSF (National Science Foundation) were awarded… We went with a crowd funding approach because it leads to direct interaction between the general public and scientists conducting research in real-time. We want all of the aspects of scientific research to be readily accessible to the general public. That includes the finances… By funding our research, people are becoming invested directly in the science. They start caring about the project. I hope that this will translate to a more general curiosity about science.

This is not an uncommon sentiment and crowdfunding certainly provides a refreshing alternative to traditional funding sources for research scientists but I wonder given the sense of ‘moral’ accountability to independent contributors, is this funding model a greater or lesser burden? More or less independence from the funding source? More information about Ethan’s project and crowdfunding endeavours can be found here on a crowdfunding portal


In his blog post, ‘The Limits of Crowdsourcing in the Scientific Disciplines’, Senior Editor with Oxford University Press and former research scientist David Crotty sees crowdsourcing as manifesting inherent conflicts between egalitarianism and expertise. He doesn’t believe Science can be outsourced as it requires specialist training, experience and expertise – therefore precluding it from being egalitarian. I think what he means is the pursuit of scientific discovery and its process should not be the result of a popularity contest…. although heading in the other direction where the premise is ‘scientists know best’ also leads us to questions of accountability for how taxpayer funding is applied in the best interests of the community – and who should determine that?

The particular bee in Crotty’s bonnet relates to public review of papers for publication. Crowdsourcing reviewers has some inherent problems. Traditionally we have relied upon experts for peer review to assess and legitimise (or not) the quality of the work undertaken. This is the designated quality control. Crotty somewhat facetiously enquires whether we should instead turn to crowdsourcing to determine if a paper is accurate, meaningful and useful through a popularity vote. As he phrases it, ‘Should a bottom-up approach replace the top-down system in place?’ He has a point where online statistics reflect whether a piece is ‘liked’ or cited (which may be as a result of it being accessible) rather than assessing if it has scientific merit. The ….and vulnerable to biases and directed manipulation.

But is Crotty just protecting his income stream against free access journals? He chooses not to acknowledge the long-standing inequity which crowdsourcing and open source models seek to address. Are his arguments, while containing several valid concerns, just as much about the (re)democratization of science?

I do, however, agree with his concluding statement which we would do well to remember to avoid getting carried away,

Social approaches can offer enormous value, but they must occur in the right context for the results offered. It may not seem fair to everyone, but not everything in this world should be put to a vote — even if we have the technology to make it so.’

Understanding why people choose to participate/contribute to the less engaging and interactive forms of crowdsourcing would be interesting. For some people it is about income while others participate as a social experience and the personal reward of connecting or contributing. Can it be purely altruistic? Do people just wnat to belong to something (or anything)? Is it a real albeit small way of making a mark? Perhaps largely vicarious?

Whatever the reasons, crowdsourcing is a dynamic and exciting social movement with much potential as a tool serving scientific research and outreach to facilitate a democratization of science (open science). If you are interested in hearing more about crowdsourcing and open science check out this video featuring Australian Micahel Nielsen – an academic, Tedtalk presenter and international advocate of open science.

Until next time. DS


(If you like the work of musician Gotye, here is an crowdsourced remix of his song, ‘Somebody that I used to know’, called “Somebodies: A YouTube Orchestra.”)


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