Crowdsourced research: Many hands make tight work


Raphael Silberzahn & Eric L. Uhlmann in Nature: “…For many research problems, crowdsourcing analyses will not be the optimal solution. It demands a huge amount of resources for just one research question. Some questions will not benefit from a crowd of analysts: researchers’ approaches will be much more similar for simple data sets and research designs than for large and complex ones. Importantly, crowdsourcing does not eliminate all bias. Decisions must still be made about what hypotheses to test, from where to get suitable data, and importantly, which variables can or cannot be collected. (For instance, we did not consider whether a particular player’s skin tone was lighter or darker than that of most of the other players on his team.) Finally, researchers may continue to disagree about findings, which makes it challenging to present a manuscript with a clear conclusion. It can also be puzzling: the investment of more resources can lead to less-clear outcomes.

“Under the current system, strong storylines win out over messy results.”

Still, the effort can be well worth it. Crowdsourcing research can reveal how conclusions are contingent on analytical choices. Furthermore, the crowdsourcing framework also provides researchers with a safe space in which they can vet analytical approaches, explore doubts and get a second, third or fourth opinion. Discussions about analytical approaches happen before committing to a particular strategy. In our project, the teams were essentially peer reviewing each other’s work before even settling on their own analyses. And we found that researchers did change their minds through the course of analysis.

Crowdsourcing also reduces the incentive for flashy results. A single-team project may be published only if it finds significant effects; participants in crowdsourced projects can contribute even with null findings. A range of scientific possibilities are revealed, the results are more credible and analytical choices that seem to sway conclusions can point research in fruitful directions. What is more, analysts learn from each other, and the creativity required to construct analytical methodologies can be better appreciated by the research community and the public.

Of course, researchers who painstakingly collect a data set may not want to share it with others. But greater certainty comes from having an independent check. A coordinated effort boosts incentives for multiple analyses and perspectives in a way that simply making data available post-publication does not.

The transparency resulting from a crowdsourced approach should be particularly beneficial when important policy issues are at stake. The uncertainty of scientific conclusions about, for example, the effects of the minimum wage on unemployment, and the consequences of economic austerity policies should be investigated by crowds of researchers rather than left to single teams of analysts.

Under the current system, strong storylines win out over messy results. Worse, once a finding has been published in a journal, it becomes difficult to challenge. Ideas become entrenched too quickly, and uprooting them is more disruptive than it ought to be. The crowdsourcing approach gives space to dissenting opinions.

Scientists around the world are hungry for more-reliable ways to discover knowledge and eager to forge new kinds of collaborations to do so. Our first project had a budget of zero, and we attracted scores of fellow scientists with two tweets and a Facebook post.

Researchers who are interested in starting or participating in collaborative crowdsourcing projects can access resources available online. We have publicly shared all our materials and survey templates, and the Center for Open Science has just launched ManyLab, a web space where researchers can join crowdsourced projects….(More).

See also Nature special collection:reproducibility