Adventures in Crowdsourced Research – Foldit Strikes Again

The Boston Globe has an article outlining recent developments in research that benefits from crowdsourcing (H/T Twitter).  It’s well worth the read, especially if you’re not familiar with the problem, or are under the impression that it’s a new phenomenon.  What’s raised the profile of the method is the increasing ease of finding, mobilizing and motivating your crowds.

Some will likely find the latest edition to the Zooniverse crowdsourcing family – Ancient Lives – where you can help transcribe ancient Greek papyrus scrolls – a lovely way to pass the afternoon.  But the most recent finding readers will find of interest is likely that a group of gamers playing Foldit have figured out a persistent puzzle in AIDS virus research (you can dive into the full study as well).  Researchers had struggled with the build of this specific retroviral protease, but a reframing of the challenge into a puzzle and unleashing it on the crowd unleashed much more available brainpower.

The Boston Globe piece also makes a useful point, one that may have to run the conservative gauntlet that is scientific research.

“Even if science becomes more open, there are also practical limitations: It takes a certain brilliance, and a lot of work, to recognize problems that can be shared with a crowd, and set up the systems needed for strangers to work together productively. It is not always clear when this tactic will move a project forward, or slow it down.

“With time, though, one might expect a new type of scientist to emerge: one who is especially adept at recognizing problems, and designing projects, that tap the brilliance of a dispersed and motley team, whoever they may be.”

Now research scientists currently need to manage teams, but they are a different kind of team than the loose associations of puzzle solvers and picture flippers that often populate crowdsourcing projects.  They’re much closer to the human computers (used to perform tedious calculations in the decades prior to the emergence of their electronic cousins) of old than the graduate students of today.  Motivations and reward systems will no doubt be different.  And research institutions don’t deal well with different.