Crowdsourcing as academic methodology

Modern information and communications technology has allowed large groups of people in locations around the globe to participate collective analysis and debate. The best known product of this approach is Wikipedia, which publishes information online that is written and edited by anyone who chooses to do so, expert of otherwise. While academics often advise caution in the use of such collective work as source material, it is clear that Wikipedia has become the reference of choice for people in all walks of life, including members of the academy itself.

Now researchers from George Mason University are assessing the use of non-expert crowds in making judgements about the likelihood or nature of future events. The initial context for this research is intelligence analysis, but there may be scope for the development of crowdsourcing as a research method in other contexts as well. The initial assumption is that large numbers of people, even those without advanced expertise in the subject, can when their views are taken together make more accurate judgments on certain topics than smaller groups of specialists. Such methods are unlikely to find a cure for cancer, but they may be useful in gaining political or other social science insights.

It is not that academic study is set to become a giant ‘ask-the-audience’ exercise, but larger groups contain both wisdom and knowledge that can be tapped more effectively. It is at any rate worth some analysis.

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6 Comments on “Crowdsourcing as academic methodology”

  1. John Carter Says:

    Q1. List the assumptions implicit in this post. (10 marks)

  2. Vincent Says:

    Cant get much worse for black guys in Georgia using this jellybeans-in-a-jar method.

  3. don Says:

    Why would crowdsourcing be unlikely to find a cure for cancer or other life-threatening diseases and conditions? There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence (old wives tales, herbal remedies, alternative therapies), not normally accepted by the ‘specialists’ (who are 100% products of the academic system), that cures are out there.

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    It might be worth noting that as far as the researh project mentioned in the post is concerned although ‘No specialized background is required’ however it is stated that ‘a college degree is preferred’. As for Wikipedia a recent study has (maybe not surprisingly) revealed that articles controlled by a small group of editors that coordinate their work closely seem to be of higher quality than the rest. Critics of crowdsourcing like Jason Lanier have argued that crowd wisdom is best suited for problems that involve optimization, but ill suited for problems that require creativity or innovation (in his book You Are Not a Gadget-A Manifesto http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Are-Not-Gadget-Manifesto/dp/1846143411). For a narrative account of Wikipedia covering the period 2000-2008 a useful refeence is
    http://www.wikipediarevolution.com/The_Book.html

  5. john Bisset Says:

    While Don ‘s comment is entirely reasonable – in a number of areas there are options and solutions which some few may know which are not part of what is currently within waht is taken to be ‘expert’ knowledge – the suggestion that the views of ‘large numbers of people…..taken together ‘ will provide anything but nonsense is farcical.

    All that you will discover is that large numbers of people share similar delusions.of ‘knowledge’. This is utterly useless as any sort of ‘academic methodology for any topic which requires fact not opinion. For non-rigorous topics which are opinion based anyway, it is as a good a way of wasting time as any. Political science, socail science and so forth, precisely. As for ‘crowd wisdom’ and ‘optimising’, words fail me.

    John Bisset

  6. John Carter Says:

    I find the notion that academics are always right and everyone else always wrong rather touching. The fact that academics disagree immediately disproves it.


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