One of the reasons we were excited to start Citizen Science Today was the chance to highlight commentary and results from a wide range of sources, but I didn’t expect us to be featuring a post from a mailing list. Nonetheless, Ben Brumfield’s careful response to the question ‘where are the failures?’ on a transcription mailing list provides food for thought for anyone surveying the citizen science landscape.

Øyvind makes an excellent point. Opportunities for failure abound,
especially in projects (like crowdsourced transcription) that require
such a large investment into digitization and software development up
front, but which are often justified by eventual cost savings. I
suspect that many failures–especially the ones which fail due to
inability to find motivated volunteers–are costly failures indeed and
are not adequately publicized. Nevertheless, I think I can come up
with some failure stories.

It’s only fair to start with a personal example. In 2012, I started
work with Free UK Genealogy. Because this organization had been
running crowdsourced transcription projects off-line for almost two
decades, our goal was to rewrite the entire technical stack. We began
building new transcription tools to replace the existing system of
spreadsheets and emails. However, the existing volunteers (who were
comfortable with the existing system) rebelled at the idea of
replacing the tools they were familiar with for no obvious benefit to
them. Within a year we had to table the effort and instead focus on
the public-facing website/search engine. This proved very popular,
and now we feel that we have more support for the transcription tool
project. Nevertheless, we’re only revisiting the transcription tool
now, four years after the re-write was started.

Photo Credit: Building A Volunteer Community: Results and Findings from Transcribe Bentham

Source: LISTSERV 16.0 – TEI-L Archives

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