Funding, collaboration and future directions? Response to ApprentHist blog post on Transcribe Bentham

By Louise Seaward, on 24 January 2017

Just before Christmas, three students who are studying for a Masters in History at Université de Lille 3 wrote a detailed blog on Transcribe Bentham at the ApprentHiST site.  The blog post is written in French but non-French speakers should be able to get a good idea of the content using Google Translate!  Gauthier Herbille, Jeremy Mazet and Axel Petit summarised the workflow of Transcribe Bentham and also offered us a few critiques and questions, which I would like to respond to here.

As Herbille, Mazet and Petit noted, Transcribe Bentham has enjoyed considerable success since it was launched in 2010.  Transcripts produced by our loyal and skilled volunteers feed directly into the work of the Bentham Project, which is producing the definitive scholarly edition of the writings of Jeremy Bentham.  I think the authors are right to suggest that our crowdsourcing initiative would meet with the approval of Bentham himself.  Our volunteers work towards ‘the greatest happiness’, contributing to an academic project that helps us to understand and disseminate the views of an important philosopher.

The blog post raised a number of questions regarding the current and future direction of Transcribe Bentham.  I am going to focus my discussion on three areas of debate: funding, the volunteer community and the distinction between specialists and non-specialists in academia.

I’ll start with the issue of funding.  The authors point out that by asking volunteers to transcribe documents, we are depriving qualified and experienced people of the opportunity to get paid for this kind of work.  This is a valid point but the realities of our funding situation must be acknowledged.  As the authors accept, the financial security of Transcribe Bentham and the Bentham Project is precarious.  The Bentham Project has one permanent, full-time member of staff funded by UCL and the posts of our other staff are funded by short-term research grants.  UCL and other research bodies are unlikely to bestow funding for transcription alone.  The work of volunteers therefore makes it possible for us to collect transcriptions at rate which would be otherwise impossible, representing a significant cost-saving for the Bentham Project (Causer, Grint, Sichani and Terras, forthcoming).

Herbille, Mazet and Petit also lament that Transcribe Bentham lacks a robust user community.  Tim Causer and Valerie Wallace explored this issue in an early article on Transcribe Bentham and many of their findings still stand.  Their research showed that users were generally failing to take advantage of the social features of the Mediawiki system, such as user profiles and collaborative transcription (Causer and Wallace, 2012).  This reticence may have stemmed partly from technical issues on the site and it could also be a product of the relatively small size of our volunteer cohort.  We may need many more active transcribers before communication really takes off!  But the sense of community in Transcribe Bentham manifests itself in other ways – most volunteers are in semi-regular contact with me and they receive recognition and feedback on every transcript they submit.  Their diligent work makes it clear that they are very committed to the goals of our project, even if they may be a little quiet!

Finally, the blog provides some interesting food for thought on the distinction between specialists and non-specialists in the academic world.  Herbille, Mazet and Petit draw on James Surowiecki’s notion of the ‘wisdom of crowds’ to suggest that a large, diverse group of volunteers may be more likely to produce accurate transcriptions than a very small group of trained researchers.  This begs the question of how far we should rely on the work of experts…  In Transcribe Bentham, we aim to combine the contributions of our ‘crowd’ with the scholarly oversight and input of Bentham Project staff.  For the moment, we are not heading in the direction of social scholarly editing where user-generated content is integrated directly into a published edition.  Social scholarly editing raises complicated questions about reliability and consistency and is also difficult to achieve in the medium of print where space is at a premium.  Kenneth M. Price’s work on the Walt Whitman Archive suggests some interesting ways that the public could help to enhance digital editions though translation and annotation.  These user contributions could end up making editions more attractive to a wider audience outside of academia (Price, 2016).  The collaboration between researcher and public in Transcribe Bentham may seem simplistic in comparison, but it works for us right now!

Our thanks go to Gauthier Herbille, Jeremy Mazet and Axel Petit for engaging with our project and giving us this chance to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of scholarly crowdsourcing.

References:

T. Causer and V. Wallace, ‘Building  Volunteer Community: Results and Findings from Transcribe Bentham‘, Digital Humanities Quarterly, 6, 2 (2012)

T. Causer, K. Grint, A-M. Sichani and M. Terras, 2016, ‘’Making such bargain’: Transcribe Bentham and the quality and cost-effectiveness of crowdsourced transcription’, (forthcoming article)

K. M. Price, ‘The Walt Whitman Archive and the prospects of social editing‘, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities (2016) DOI: 10.1093/llc/fqw056