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Study: Crowdsourcing a Valuable Resource in Medicine

By APRIL I. KIM, Contributing Writer

Crowdsourcing, posing a question, problem, or idea on the internet with the hope of soliciting responses from other web-users, has emerged as a valuable new method of soliciting ideas and solutions in the medical field, according to a case study conducted jointly by researchers at Harvard Medical School, Harvard Business School, London Business School, and web-based innovation company TopCoder.

“The beauty of crowdsourcing is that it provides access to people that you would never normally meet,” said Ramy A. Arnaout, an assistant professor of pathology at the Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Arnaout, who co-authored the study, examined the impact of providing cash prizes to software developers and programmers on the web to encourage responses to a computational biological problem.

Arnaout said that the study—which was released in the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology on Feb. 7—showed that crowdsourcing is “100 percent beneficial,” calling the solutions from TopCoder users “mind-bogglingly elegant.”

Of the 122 responses to Arnaout’s TopCoder post, 16 of the algorithm solutions were more efficient and accurate than the ones produced by Arnaout and 30 beat the well-established National Institute of Health’s MegaBLAST benchmark, according to the study. Associate professor at the Medical School Eva C. Guinan, who also worked on the study, said that while researchers had originally been working with four to five approaches to the problem, the submissions provided 89 new ways to approach the problem.

Although crowdsourcing traditionally only has been employed in more commercial settings, the scope of the study suggests that there is a place for crowdsourcing in scientific and medical fields.

“In our pursuit of knowledge we can leverage the knowledge of other people around the world,” said Harvard Business School assistant professor Karim R. Lakhani.

Robert Hughes, the president of TopCoder, said he believes that scientists will soon be able to use crowdsourcing to sift through large data sets, utilizing a global community to answer complicated problems.

Guinan echoed Hughes, saying that web-based crowdsourcing could prove valuable in academic problem-solving.

“I think that in many ways the core message here is that in a complicated world where time and resource are limiting, you need to be aware of the means at your disposal to make progress in the most efficient way you can,” she said.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Feb. 24, 2013

An earlier version of this article misidentified the gender of associate professor at the Medical School Eva C. Guinan, who is in fact a woman.

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