Crowd Science User Contribution Patterns and Their Implications
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), January 20, 2015 vol. 112 no. 3
18 Pages Posted: 7 Jan 2015 Last revised: 29 Oct 2015
Date Written: January 6, 2015
Scientific research performed with the involvement of the broader public (the “crowd”) attracts increasing attention from scientists and policy makers. A key premise is that project organizers may be able to draw on underutilized human resources to advance research at relatively low cost. Despite a growing number of examples, systematic research on the effort contributions volunteers are willing to make to crowd science projects is lacking. Analyzing data on seven different projects, we quantify the financial value volunteers can bring by comparing their unpaid contributions with counterfactual costs in traditional or online labor markets. The volume of total contributions is substantial, although some projects are much more successful in attracting effort than others. Moreover, contributions received by projects are very uneven across time – a tendency towards declining activity is interrupted by spikes typically resulting from outreach efforts or media attention. Analyzing user-level data, we find that most contributors participate only once and with little effort, leaving a relatively small share of users who return responsible for most of the work. While top contributor status is earned primarily through higher levels of effort, top contributors also tend to work faster. This speed advantage develops over multiple sessions, suggesting that it reflects learning rather than inherent differences in skills. Our findings inform recent discussions about potential benefits from crowd science, suggest that involving the crowd may be more effective for some kinds of projects than others, provide guidance for project managers, and raise important questions for future research.
Keywords: crowd science, citizen science, crowdsourcing, effort valuation, dynamics
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