Is the crowd opening up or dumbing down research?

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Alastair Dunning of JISC looks at some of the many ways that the public is contributing to digital research today

Whether your favourite tipple is a lanny or a craitur might depend on whether you’re a wine or a whiskey drinker, and even where in Scotland you live. Last month, an innovative new project funded by JISC asked people there to contribute to a unique dictionary of Scottish words and place-names. The twist? Contributors are using not email or a public library, but the tools of the web: posting messages on Facebook, tweeting the project team and contributing to an online discussion.

It’s the latest in a series of community projects JISC is sponsoring that are asking the general public to contribute their knowledge and expertise to research through interactive web technology, not simply because they can or because it’s trendy, but because crowdsourcing is now, by default, digital. The idea behind this particular project is to focus firmly on how people are speaking now rather than the more traditional approach of largely gathering evidence from written material – so it makes perfect sense to go out to where people are, already tweeting, posting and updating their Facebook pages.

Two major drivers have contributed to the growth of community collections like this one. Web 2.0 technologies have developed to offer far more interactivity in the last few years – whether it’s adding comments to a page, video to YouTube or simply uploading photos to a central archive, content publishers now have more flexibility than ever before for interacting with a wide range of users. The British Library sound map project asks people to contribute audio recordings that are published on their webpages; JISC’s Strandlines project is assembling documents that articulate the history of one of London’s most famous streets, The Strand. As digital cameras, videoing devices and supporting software become more widespread, it’s possible to collate a range of media from the crowd when this might be very expensive to do independently.

But it’s not just about multimedia – the Old Weather project asks the public to transcribe Royal Navy log books from the early 20th century, which include valuable meteorological data recorded by ships’ crew members. Such an approach has a triple benefit – naval enthusiasts have whole new stories about British seafaring; military and other historians have fresh evidence and scientists have access to vital meteorological information to help them understand long-term patterns in climate change.

Researchers are also seeing the advantages in developing meaningful relationships with businesses, public sector partners and community groups just as the universities they work for are actively developing their external engagement missions. These outside groups are sources of expertise, funding and advice but also can help grow a researcher’s audience so that the end-products of their research have a much wider reach. Getting people involved means these users evolve to become both consumers and creators of digital data.

But when does ‘crowd sourcing’ work well? Firstly, if you’re looking for expertise from a range of sources then the potential for ideas generation is massive, given the size and expertise of the online community. In the commercial world, BMW received 4000 ideas within seven days of setting up its Virtual Innovation Agency, which invites ideas for products and designs. The term crowd-sourcing doesn’t seem to accurately cover the depth of this kind of activity.

Secondly, asking for contributions online can be an excellent option when funds are limited. JISC supported the Great War Archive project, which asked people to contribute photos and memories of their own wartime collections (such as letters, photos, medals and notebooks) to a central website either directly online or through roadshows where they were brought along and digitised on the spot. The project team calculated that this was incredibly cost effective. Each item submitted through the archive cost around £3.50 to ‘capture’, catalogue, and distribute, compared with around £40 per item in the main digitisation initiative when this was managed in-house. The sheer scale of such collecting would also take much longer if you have a small team working on it, so crowdsourcing can speed up a potentially time consuming process.

Idle computing power has long since been donated by those wishing to contribute to projects like the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). But when some of the responsibility for content is pushed out into the public arena, is there a risk that we are trawling research data from the hands of those who know little about it? How do we balance the quantity of content we need, with rigorous quality control?

The University of Oxford’s Galaxy Zoo, which asks the general public to describe and classify astronomical images has addressed this well. In addition to developing intelligent mechanisms for recording and analysing public contributions, the Oxford team and their partners ensure that they give due credit to their contributing ‘citizen scientists’ right from the outset – to the extent that they are cited as contributing authors in published articles. Galaxy Zoo demonstrates that we have to be prepared to share that balance of power with those who fund, contribute to and benefit from our research. Only by showing our processes and opening up our data, early findings and papers are we going to find support for the research of tomorrow. Just as big brands can build consumer trust by getting them involved in initiatives like MyStarbucks, so we can enhance the non-academic world’s trust in research by inviting them through the keyhole right from the start of our projects.

Alastair Dunning is a programme manager for JISC