Gamifying and Crowdsourcing Academia

That already sounds like a boring title, doesn't it? Quantum Jesus on a pogo stick, I'm not even 17 yet and I already sound like a miserable, middle-aged academic. And you know what one of the saddest things is? This could probably be one of the best things to happen to academia in a long while.

If you're not interested in academia, I'll admit my weaknesses now and say there's probably no way I can make you interested. It's not so much that it's a dry and uninteresting area so much as if you already think it's dry and uninteresting you're probably not the kind of person who would care about the ability of many people to crack problems that computers and individuals have problems doing, and just how you'd get people to do that.

For those of you who are interested, though, keep reading!

I'm interested in gamifying and crowdsourcing all academia for a couple of reasons; I know it happens in the sciences and maths, but (with the exception of the Ancient Lives project, set up to transcribe the papyri found at Oxyrhynchus) it seems that there isn't all that much going on in the arts and humanities. That's a great shame.

You might be asking me "why crowdsource things?". You might be cynical, sceptical, assuming expert work is best left to the experts or pointing out that a lot of crowdsourcing tasks are actually quite basic and tedious. You might think that it's just some new fad that doesn't really work out.

Well, it's not really that new - it's been around since the nineteenth century, when the lexicographer James Murray appealed to the wisdom of tens of thousands of unpaid volunteers over several decades to help compile a new dictionary. In 1884, its first unbound fascicle was published - and it had first been conceived of in 1857.

It doesn't sound great, does it? 27 years for one fascicle? Well, that first fascicle was the first part of the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the most comprehensive ever compiled - in fact, it's so comprehensive that as of 24 March 2011 they'd still only managed to complete the third edition from M to Ryvita and the chief executive, Nigel Portwood, doesn't think it'll ever be printed. You could only get something that comprehensive with crowdsourcing; there's simply no way that a couple of editors could ever compile it in their lifetimes.

As for tasks being basic and tedious? I'd say that's a fair charge; classifying galaxies and transcribing manuscripts that can be near-unreadable and are often damaged is grunt work - especially when you don't know any Greek. However, they don't have to be basic or tedious - it's more to do with what tasks people are set to, and sometimes gamifying things can encourage people to spend more time doing them. How much time have you spent doing things that are objectively incredibly pointless and tedious yet seem fun?! Hell, transcribing papyri is strangely addictive and it's not even gamified!

Another problem is with services like Mechanical Turk, where crowdworkers are considered independent contractors rather than employees and can thus be paid less than the minimum wage. As much as I love crowdsourcing things, this isn't something that I or anyone else can ignore, though it's not a problem with crowdsourcing but more a problem of using crowdsourcing ethically and how crowdsourcing can be regarded as a business practice. My first tentative suggestion would be to regulate how little an independent contractor to be paid and set it to the minimum wage, but if anyone has a better suggestion I really do want to hear it.

The last problem and the only one I can really say is false is the idea of leaving disciplines to the experts. I'll be honest with you - I think it's fucking awful, because it acts as a restriction on knowledge, that you can't take an interest in something or even be remotely informed about it simply because you haven't taken a degree in that subject. There is still very much a place for the talented amateur in research and particularly in crowdsourcing, because while they may not be leading the research they can still lend a pair of hands to help out and get things done. Besides, they could also transfer knowledge and skills from other disciplines, which tends to be where the interesting things happen.

So, that's that over...Why do I actually like crowdsourcing, anyway?

Firstly, crowdsourcing is a way of processing a lot of data very quickly. You might argue that we have computers for that - but computers aren't necessarily that great at telling apart galaxies or characters in degraded manuscripts, which is where human volunteers can do things far more quickly and accurately, freeing up researchers' time to know...more analysis and research rather than grunt work, some of which could potentially take hundreds of years with just a small group. It's not just grunt work, either; if you got large numbers of people to collaborate on high-level problems such as those yet unsolved in mathematics, they could potentially be cracked far quicker than just a single, solitary researcher - and it's been done before, too. We could figure out whether the Riemann hypothesis is true, or whether P equals NP. These, by the way, are some of the most important unsolved problems today and finding solutions, or proving that there are none, could revolutionise our understanding of maths, physics, computer science - all things that ultimately affect our world. Giving these problems to a world of everyone from professors of mathematics down to people with the most basic academic grasp of mathematics could see them solved very quickly indeed - well, for some of the most difficult and important problems around today.

And you might not even need to give them to mathematicians. Remember how I mentioned the transferring of knowledge and skills from one discipline to another earlier? If these problems were couched in terms that any layperson could understand and presented as a puzzle, you'd probably get even more people trying to solve these problems. Now put it in a game and set it up so that you can't complete a vaguely important part (say, completing all puzzles in the game) without solving it...Cue getting frustrated gamers to crowdsource a solution. With that much manpower and effort, these problems could again be solved relatively quickly. (Credit to my boyfriend for suggesting this application.)

Another advantage of crowdsourcing - and one that could be of particular advantage in the humanities - is that since lots of different people are involved, they will all hold different viewpoints and approach problems in different, unconventional ways. This could potentially lead to new understandings of things, and would almost certainly help with compilations of, say, commentaries in the classics. Frequently different commentators will concentrate on different things and work on different levels - so one commentary might concentrate on textual corruptions while another might provide basic criticism. There's a reason that people tend to have many different commentaries on the same texts - and even then they can't agree on anything. Trying to crowdsource commentaries, as with the crowdsourcing of dictionaries, could potentially provide something much more comprehensive and highlight any ambiguities or points of disagreement.

That's pretty impressive in itself: quick and original solutions to problems that computers and individuals can't solve. But there's another benefit too: it's a good way to start dismantling, or at least lowering, the ivory tower that separates academia from the rest of the world.

Now, as a lover of all things academic I would dearly love to pretend that this tower doesn't exist - but it does. Academic books are often expensive and sometimes written partially or completely in other languages, such as Latin (Oxford Classical Texts is an example), while if you asked the average layperson how they can buy academic journals I doubt they'd have a clue - I certainly don't. Indeed, these journals are often hidden behind paywalls. Now, I'm not going to blame the academics for this - a lot of them oppose the paywalls if not the other things. But I'm not going to ignore this ivory tower, not when it's staring me in the face. It only helps to perpetuate anti-intellectualism and a sense of bewilderment, too, that academics aren't a part of "normal" society and they're just the boffins that come up with the discoveries that normal people use. That's not good for anyone - not for the future generations of academics and not for the future generations who think they'll have to rely on them.

In a perfect world, I would declare academic freedom and smash the paywalls. Indeed, if I actually knew how to hack I'd be downloading and distributing articles like it was going out of style, and if I were actually at university I'd be agitating for more freedom. But I'm no hacker and no student, either, so all I can do is write and hope someone listens. And all I can do is try and do my part to reach out.

Crowdsourcing is potentially a great way to reach out to laypeople and show them that no, academia is not a place full of eggheads that normal people should have nothing to do with, it's about trying to understand things and it's something anyone can and should help out with - possibly with results that could change our understanding of the world as we know it.