Crowdsourcing – a new way to do scholarly work?

Almost a year ago, on 20th of April the Bentham Project at University College London announced an ambitious and innovative initiative called “Transcribe Bentham“. The goal was to transcribe a huge amount of written manuscripts by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), a well-known English philosopher and reformer who was influential in arguing for individual and economic freedom, and various other important social liberties such as freedom of speech, women’s rights, decriminalization of homosexuality amongst others. The project’s main goal was to provide a comprehensive piece of collected works of Jeremy Bentham as well as have these works accessible for the general public in a searchable database.

The method for doing this was quite unusual in an academic setting. The idea was to use crowdsourcing – which in essence means that rather than usual outsourcing of certain tasks, there is an open call for a community or group of people to participate in an open manner. The idea is that this would attract contributions of people who have the necessary skills to do certain tasks. The concept was propsed by Jeff Howe in a Wired magazine article in 2006, who argued that this was a step further from outsourcing to cheap labour. By aiming at large open mass collaboration, companies can take advantage of enthusiasts who would like to contribute, sometimes only for a symbolic price. The initial arena for using this was in business environments and examples include free stock photo databases such as iStockphoto where amateurs and hobby photographers upload their photography.

The idea has gained ground in various other arenas, but in an academic setting this was quite an innovative approach. Being a highly professional field with a lot of specialised expertise, academic research has in general been a relatively closed arena with respect to mass collaborations from the general public. However, the Transcribe Bentham project was finally launched in 7th of September 2010 and it challenges this traditional division, the general public was invited to participate in various ways: in addition to contributing with transcriptions, the users were involved in a social network, they could create their own profile on the project website, comment and discuss on a forum, tell other users of their favourite quotes. The initiative even included potential to earn points and thus rise in an internal ranking system of users, on what they called the Benthamometer.

The project gained a lot of attention, being featured in various higher education news, but also in the general media. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in September quoted a researcher on the project: “This is a groundbreaking project—the first crowdsourcing transcription project—so we are unsure of what to expect“. The article further quoted an expert on Benthams work, Stephen G. Engelmann on the potential of this initiative: “I think it could be quite significant because the thing about Bentham is he just wrote so much and a lot of it is locked up in manuscripts. /…/ Anyone who is taking the time to work with it for a while would in time be better at actually doing the transcription than any number of scholars, myself included“, emphasizing further that transcription is not quite the same as scholarly work.

Initial success was reported, in January they had reportedly 1000 transcribers and over 1000 contributions during the whole project period (100 submissions were uploaded during the Christmas holidays only). However, on 8th of March the initial six-month funding period ended, which means that the project has to be cut down. While the site will remain functional, the actual work of editing and giving feedback to users has to be cut down. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education cited  Philip Schofield, the project leader: “It’s the backup we can give it which is in danger of disappearing toward the end of the year—that active involvement and relationship with users which the research staff has built up“. Having had such a success, it would be a pity if the 39,000 or so manuscripts still left would end up not being transcribed.

While this project has reached its end in some ways – perhaps this is a time to reflect on the potential of crowdsourcing in higher education? While there is no doubt that research work requires a special and advanced expertise that is too specialised for the general public, there is also no doubt that there is also different kind of expertise out there that can be used in research environments – be it for transcribing or for example programming. Now – the question is whether and how higher education can take advantage of this enthusiasm and expertise?