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
Either the forum (flickr) or the ‘public’ nature of the project made them lurkers and silent back-channel (email/phone) contributors.
— Ben W. Brumfield (@benwbrum) October 15, 2013
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.