Crowdsourcing: A Flexible Method for Innovation, Data Collection, and Analysis in Social Science Research

Michael Keating, Bryan Rhodes, and Ashley Richards,

RTI International

Crowdsourcing is a relatively recent phenomenon that arose in the early part of the 21st century. Jeff Howe first introduced crowdsourcing in a 2006 article in Wired magazine, defining it as the act of outsourcing tasks to a large group of people rather than having employees or contractors perform the tasks. The crowd finds out about the task through an open call asking for contributions, and those who respond are typically paid for their time and effort (Govindaraj et al., 2011). Crowdsourcing has also been described as “tapping into the collective intelligence of the public to complete a task” (King, 2009). As Howe originally explained, “it's not outsourcing, it's crowdsourcing” (Howe, 2006).


But what is crowdsourcing exactly? Often the term is thrown around without much context. Social science researchers' experience with crowdsourcing comes in three high-level forms.

  • Open Innovation: Challenge-based crowdsourcing is used to generate research ideas from a large base of people.
  • Data Collection: Crowds can be used to conduct targeted data collection to supplement and add depth to social science research. Some researchers are using platforms like Mechanical Turk (discussed below) to gather survey response.
  • Analysis: Sentiment analysis coding can be conducted on a large scale ...

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