Do experts need a defence?

I’ve been meaning to write a post about crowdsourcing and experts for a while, so long in fact that I now feel inadequate to the task. Suffice then, to note a few things down.

Crowdsourcing is a fairly recently coined term and has opened up huge debates about the power and value in letting the crowd create new digital reference points. It’s also fundamentally challenged the role of experts in mediating information and knowledge. In short, it’s the Wikipedia model v. the Encyclopædia Brittanica model (though it’s maybe ironic that the Wikipedia entry for crowdsourcing is flagged as needing improvement, pointing to both the strength and weakness of the concept).

The term came up in a conversation I had recently with my Dad. He worked for years as an academic and editor – in short, an expert – and like me wants to know if the two approaches to knowledge, information, publishing, etc., can co-exist. Derek Powazek, speaking at Webstock ’09, said yes they can: the crowd can provide things while the experts can judge them. Similar in thought might be Jason Epstein’s optimism that, while Big Publishing may be failing thanks to the internet, good editors will never die. Further, it may be the nature of the internet – its sprawling uncontrolled and rapid growth – that’s making a decent editor more necessary than ever.

National Radio ran a Windows on the World piece about a month ago about transient lunar phenomenon (TLPs) and whether their existence (if they exist) is caused by gas escaping from underground cavities on the moon’s surface. Ergo, is the moon as dead as we think? It’s more complicated than I could summarise but one of the points made against the existence of TLPs is that much of the evidence comes from amateur photographers who tend to focus on common lunar features. This gives rise to observational bias and provides plenty of possible evidence at a handful of well-photographsed sites but none across the entire rest of the moon’s surface. That’s not to say amateur astro-photographers don’t have their place (check out what the National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory is doing to harness their work, blogged about by Best-of-3 here), but perhaps the democratic nature of the crowd has a tendency toward a homogenised majority view.

One last example – again I haven’t got a reference for it and the details are hazy – is a study that compared the collection of a major US public library with that of a large US university library. The former, developed over time by generalist librarians, had a scope that was vast and comprehensive. The latter, determined by the interests of specialised and disparate academics, was patchy in scope but incredibly detailed in its depth, far more so than the public library’s collection.

If generalist librarians represent the crowd and academics are our experts then they’re creating very different views of the world. Academics look at the things that the rest of us don’t. To the cynics, yes, some of those things will be a waste of effort, but some of them might change the way the rest of us view something with effects far beyond the original question. We, the crowd, might even learn something.

  1. This topic interests me a lot. I think one of the glib assumptions that gets made though is about the membership of “the crowd”.

    If you look at the Wikipedia/British Encyclopaedia example, for instance, conceivably the same person could be contributing to each publication. In one case, they’re briefed, edited and paid in money by the publisher; in the other, they’re briefed, edited and paid in recognition by the community (and, in many cases, their peers … admittedly, in other cases, probably by total wack-jobs). But it’s the same knowledge from the same source – although in different places it may be delivered differently.

    I just finished Ben Goldacre’s book ‘Bad Science’ and one of the things that hit me hardest was a para on practically the last page, where he encouraged scientists to make their research and knowledge freely available (blogging being one of the tools he advocated for this). He wrote, from memory: “The future is … unmediated access to niche expertise”.

    Maybe academics and experts should make themselves part of the crowd?

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