Three Challenges to Scholarly Crowdsourcing

I spoke about three challenges in scholarly crowdsourcing in a CCLA panel discussion on 07 May 2015. Here is what I had to say about trust, workflow, and acknowledgement.  

I was invited to participate in the CCLA workshop on scholarly crowdsourcing – hosted by the University of Maryland and Drs. Mary Flanagan, Neil Fraistat, and Andrea Wiggins. I was asked to join a panel discussion and share my thoughts on challenges for scholarly crowdsourcing. Here are my notes in full.

When I think about scholarly crowdsourcing, I start with possibilities – the distributed, collaborative, unexpected connection that inevitably occurs. I know these possibilities to be true from my practical work and research: expanding discussion with crowds who are focused on achieving shared goals. Stemming from this work and learning, I see three challenges for scholarly crowdsourcing. These challenges can impact practice, policy, and participation; they are trust, workflow (a.k.a. resources) and acknowledgement.


I believe people understand their worlds through cumulative experience and bundle that with them wherever they go. That means everyone brings baggage on these adventures – sometimes that makes collaborating a bit longer to sort out… But sometimes that baggage is like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag – providing what is needed in an enchanted moment of engagement. Without trust in the potential of the product and in the well-meaning nature of the community, we might not tap into hidden reservoirs of skill and knowledge.

That calls us to trust the process of connecting with people who have useful knowledge and skill sets. It asks us to trust that quality data can be produced by a truly motley crew – and to grapple with the potential of that crowd-generated information to paint a more complete picture than presented by an expert.

We have seen the results and we are bought in, to varying degrees, in this room and on the stream – but how can we make this a cultural shift to trust, so our starting point is no longer justifying quality but rather showcasing possibility?

Trust is Risky.

Trust changes design elements – for example, decreasing single key entry standards from 10 to 3. Trust is shaped by and reflected in discourse, rhetorical approaches, and instructions – these words+images+workflows can create or flatten barriers to entry.

Trust makes authentic communication and opportunity possible by — at least in small ways — becoming (temporarily) vulnerable. Trust is a vital component of successful public engagement – and it remains challenging.


The reality of crowdsourcing typically is born from the need for help – whether in expertise or scale.

I frequently find workflow concerns at the foreground of managing projects. It is one of the most underdeveloped (perhaps underrated) elements of crowdsourcing projects. I think we can address this challenge by listening closely to those managing projects and considering creatively solutions.

We can return to our designs and find ways to make them better… indeed, some of us never leave the design phase as we iterate and optimize experiences. We can also break down the processing of data and the crowdsourcing experience into small and manageable YET still connected and coherent steps. We must develop trust in new ways of “doing” as well – to be innovatively practical in rethinking resource constraints and workflow demands.


The final challenge I see is acknowledgement – in many ways, for participants, organization, and voices yet to join.

Acknowledgement is honoring the organization/ institution/ or project’s side of the bargain, whether reporting on outcomes or making products more available – to articulate through action: “we are doing our part as you do your part”

Acknowledgement is more than high-fiving or virtually fête-ing the crowd – though that is an extremely important part of the practice. It is building that acknowledgement into the system – such as noting crowdsourcing efforts in newly created collections records.

We must face the challenging pieces of acknowledgement, such as respecting the community’s new knowledge enough to give them a place to apply that knowledge – evolving the activities or tasks in which they can participate.

Maybe acknowledgement is making the product available in new ways, with less restriction (trust again!), and opening the process with interoperability in mind.

And still acknowledgement requires investment – being there, listening, thoughtful development and design, open communication, and a willingness to go a few extra steps to demonstrate what crowdsourced public engagement means.

Acknowledgement is also reflecting on who is NOT present, who is not yet participating, and taking clear steps to improve access at every level and to increase representation – to surface and tell stories that have been left behind, erased, or blurred.

Those are the challenges I see in scholarly crowdsourcing – and I hope the conversations we have today lead to discussions we hold elsewhere and practical steps to make these obstacles into opportunities for better experiences from every angle.