Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Does citizen science invite sabotage?

Q: Does citizen science invite sabotage?

A: No.

Ok, you may want a longer version. There's a paper on crowdsourcing competitions that has lost some important context in doing the rounds of media outlets. For example, on Australia's ABC, 'Citizen science invites sabotage':
'a study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface is urging caution at this time of unprecedented reliance on citizen science. It's found crowdsourced research is vulnerable to sabotage. [...] MANUEL CEBRIAN: Money doesn't really matter, what matters is that you can actually get something - whether that's recognition, whether that's getting a contract, whether that's actually positioning an idea, for instance in the pro and anti-climate change debate - whenever you can actually get ahead.'.
The fact that the research is studying crowdsourcing competitions, which are fundamentally different to other forms of crowdsourcing that do not have a 'winner takes all' dynamic, is not mentioned. It also does not mention the years of practical and theoretical work on task validation which makes it quite difficult for someone to get enough data past various controls to significantly alter the results of crowdsourced or citizen science projects.

You can read the full paper for free, but even the title, Crowdsourcing contest dilemma, and the abstract makes the very specific scope of their study clear:
Crowdsourcing offers unprecedented potential for solving tasks efficiently by tapping into the skills of large groups of people. A salient feature of crowdsourcing—its openness of entry—makes it vulnerable to malicious behaviour. Such behaviour took place in a number of recent popular crowdsourcing competitions. We provide game-theoretic analysis of a fundamental trade-off between the potential for increased productivity and the possibility of being set back by malicious behaviour. Our results show that in crowdsourcing competitions malicious behaviour is the norm, not the anomaly—a result contrary to the conventional wisdom in the area. Counterintuitively, making the attacks more costly does not deter them but leads to a less desirable outcome. These findings have cautionary implications for the design of crowdsourcing competitions.
And from the paper itself:

'We study a non-cooperative situation where two players (or firms) compete to obtain a better solution to a given task. [...] The salient feature is that there is only one winner in the competition. [...] In scenarios of ‘competitive’ crowdsourcing, where there is an inherent desire to hurt the opponent, attacks on crowdsourcing strategies are essentially unavoidable.'
From Crowdsourcing contest dilemma by Victor Naroditskiy, Nicholas R. Jennings, Pascal Van Hentenryck and Manuel Cebrian. Published 20 August 2014 doi: 10.1098/​rsif.2014.0532 J. R. Soc. Interface 6 October 2014 vol. 11 no. 99 20140532
I don't know about you, but 'an inherent desire to hurt the opponent' doesn't sound like the kinds of cooperative crowdsourcing projects we tend to see in citizen science or cultural heritage crowdsourcing.   The study is interesting, but it is not generalisable to 'crowdsourcing' as a whole.

If you're interested in crowdsourcing competitions, you may also be interested in: On the trickiness of crowdsourcing competitions: some lessons from Sydney Design from May 2013. 

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