Annual Meeting Reports

Crowdsourcing: Using Your Readers to Generate New Information and Solve Complex Problems

Hitting a growth rate of more than 30 million words a month, 116 million unique visitors, and 4,800 active editors,1 Wikipedia reigns as one of the biggest crowdsourcing successes. Thanks to an informal community of users who have an array of backgrounds, the content is maintained with such frequency and accuracy that it remains the most widely referenced (and plagiarized) repository of information anywhere. Crowdsourcing challenges people to apply their talents collectively to solve a problem. When implemented well, it fosters a flourishing relationship between the crowdsourcing proposer and its realized network of contributors.

The proposer’s call for a contribution usually diffuses throughout an expansive and diverse group of people and results in a kaleidoscope of ideas. The proposer therefore reveals a host of perspectives that may have otherwise remained undiscovered, eliminates the need to pinpoint an individual’s skill, and focuses attention on the type of solution being sought. The strategy is scalable and cost effective, especially for the type of talent that such proposals attract. Beyond the direct benefits, targeted contributors are engaged at a level that surpasses the usual customer or reader interaction. However, crowdsourcing does not rake in its myriad benefits without occasional problems. Some of the contributors are extremely unpredictable, and preserving control in timing, quality, and content from a group of faceless, dissimilar people can prove extremely demanding.

To provide more detailed insight, Ingrid Philibert, executive managing editor of the Journal of Graduate Medical Education (JGME), summarized how her organization harnessed the power of a crowd to develop a practical definition of quality in medical education research, when JGME posed this question (of what quality means) to its community of readers. In defining quality, contributors added such qualifiers as reproducibility and, most important, applicability to real problems in the field, or the “Why should I care?” factor. The latter was related to whether the research findings could be used to meet readers’ practical needs in the workplace and to address real-world problems in medical education. Additional descriptors, then, served as material for shaping JGME’s new submission guidelines. Although the result was not as innovative as they had hoped, JGME editors gleaned key insights for using this approach in the future. Philibert noted that clear questions and clarification of the context were essential. Although she acknowledged that more specific questions may at first seem limiting, confining the scope of a discussion actually guided results to more targeted, applicable solutions. Shedding light on background items, such as the “why” and “for what” of proposed questions, also paints a richer landscape for contributors.

Jill Waalen, deputy editor of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM), detailed her exploratory tactic to combat childhood obesity. AJPM is primarily in the public-health category, and its editors believed that childhood obesity was a pressing topic with broad appeal and therefore a natural subject for crowdsourcing. However, AJPM aspired to improvements far beyond the incremental-upgrade route; she explained that the conversion from print into a “you can now follow us on Twitter” campaign was not an enticing option. Instead, an online challenge platform was used to experiment with different rewards in the mix—cash prizes, the promise of publicity, and a popular-choice award to drive traffic. Like JGME, AJPM launched its campaign through its customer base. The challenges resulted in 8,000 registered visitors and 250,000 views. Waalen believed that the campaign was an excellent way to reach a large audience and gather diverse contributio ns. She, like Philibert, observed the importance of guidance for collecting relevant, high-quality results.

Crowdsourcing remains an important resource for idea generation, especially as our world shifts away from paper-based knowledge to network-based knowledge. In light of crowdsourcing’s rising popularity, it is important to cultivate the sustainability and effectiveness of campaigns, as well as the quality of submissions, by nudging contributors from the monetary realm into the personal.