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Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Gresham's Law for Crowdsourcing and Scholarship?

This is a comment I wanted to make at Neil Fraistat's "Participatory DH" session (proposal, notes) at THATCamp Leadership, but ended up having on twitter instead.

Much of the discussion in the first half of the session focused on the qualitative difference between the activities we ask amateurs to do and the activities performed by scholars.  One concern voiced was that we're not asking "citizen scholars" to do real scholarly work, and then labeling their activity scholarship -- a concern I share with regard to editing.  If most crowdsourcing projects ask amateurs to do little more than wash test tubes, where are the projects that solicit scholarly interpretation?

The Harry Ransom Center's Manuscript Fragments Project is just such a crowdsourcing project, and I think the results may be disquieting.  In this project, fragments of medieval manuscripts reused as binding for printed books are photographed and posted on Flickr.  Volunteers use the comments to identify the fragments, discussing the scribal hand and researching the source texts. I'd argue that while this does not duplicate the full range of an academic medievalist's scholarly activities, it's certainly not just "bottle-washing" either.

The project has been very successful.  (See organizer Micah Erwin's talks for details.)  Most of the contributions to the project have been made on Flickr in the comments by a few "super volunteers" -- retired rare book dealers and graduate students among them.  However, around 20% of the identifications were made by professional medievalists who learned about the project, visited the Flickr site, and then called or emailed the project organizer.  None of their contributions were made on the public Flickr forum at all.

So why did professional scholars avoid contributing in public?  I related this on Twitter, and got some interesting suggestions
Many of these suggest a sort of Gresham's Law of crowdsourcing, in which inviting the public to participate in an activity lowers that activity's status, driving out professionals concerned with their reputation. 

There's a more reassuring explanation as well -- many people with domain expertise still aren't very comfortable with technology.  Asking them to use a public forum puts additional pressure on them, as any mistakes typing, encoding, and using the forum will be public and likely permanent.  This challenge is not confined to professionals, either -- I receive commentary on the Julia Brumfield Diaries via email from people without high school degrees, who have no professional reputation to protect.


Christian said...

Interesting reading, Ben! Still, I would also like to emphasize that 80% of the scholars díd comment on the public forum.

Recently I read an article in which a few Dutch scholars were asked for their use of Twitter, related to their profession and research. None of them used it for that.

Their reasons for this lack of Twitter use, all sounded a bit like the thoughts expressed through the Twitter mentions in your post.

Ben W. Brumfield said...

It's more accurate to say that 80% of the total contributions came in on the public forum, but 0% of the contributions from "professional scholars" were posted on the forum.

I agree that there are strong parallels between the Twitter study you mention and this -- perhaps the old guard is just more comfortable using the old ways for a multitude of reasons?

Christian said...

@Ben: Aha, I see. That's where my reading of your blogpost went wrong. ;-) Sorry for that.

And yes, I suppose that you're right about the 'old guard'. Although among those Dutch scholars who were interviewed, some of them were about my age (and I still considder myself pretty young! :-))

Perhaps scholars are just not familiar with projects like these. (The Dutch scholars in the interview, for example, had a very clear opinion about Twitter, but as so many people who have so, had no experience with the medium for themselves.)

Back to crowdsourcing: perhaps when the people behind projects that could be considdered 'typical' for a 'crowd' of scholars, would do specific outreach there, there would be more participation from them.

For example, hold meetings in which the projects are explained especially to scholars, and the possible scholary use and value of the projects is explained. And where also is explained, what the benefit for them is of working 'online'.

At such meetings one could also ask for why scholars would hesitate to use the public forums and such. And then, you could see whether there's a 'sollution' for that, which will take their hesitation away. And perhaps there are no 'sollutions'. If someone is 'afraid', for example, of his/her 'reputation', then there's little you can do, I suppose...

Well, it's not really my 'world', but it's interesting to think about this!