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Facing Budget Woes, Prominent Crowdsourcing Project Will Scale Back

Even crowdsourcing can cost money. That reality is forcing scholars to scale back a groundbreaking project that relies on volunteers to transcribe the unpublished manuscripts of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

University College London’s Transcribe Bentham project gained widespread attention as a potentially powerful new way to speed up scholarly work. But the project still required money to pay for computer programming, photography, and research associates who vet the quality of volunteers’ submissions. Now its government grant is coming to an end, meaning the associates will have to be laid off unless more money can be found.

“I don’t envisage Transcribe Bentham ever disappearing from the Web,” says Philip Schofield, the project’s director. “It’s the backup we can give it which is in danger of disappearing toward the end of the year—that active involvement and relationship with users which the research staff has built up.”

As of this week, participants had started more than 1,200 transcriptions, and about 600 had been accepted for posting online. Those volunteers can now expect longer waits for responses to their submissions. The project’s team, meanwhile, will work on writing scholarly papers about the experience.

Mr. Schofield calls the effort a success, but he acknowledges several challenges. One difficulty is the source material. It can be tough going deciphering the complicated quill-inked jottings of a philosopher who died in the 19th century. Most transcribers ended up working on one or two and then disappearing.

One way to overcome that problem might be to use the crowdsourcing model in an entity like a museum, Mr. Schofield suggests, which would already have an established community interested in its work. “We’ve had to make ours from scratch,” he says.

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