When crowdsourcing participants co-author a research paper in Nature

Here’s a great talk by Seth Cooper and Firas Khatib (University of Washington) who describe the massive possibilities of crowdsourced games like Foldit (“Solve Puzzles for Science“) at TEDx Panthéon Sorbonne. Foldit, which results from part of an experimental research project from the University of Washington, is an online puzzle video game about protein folding centered around folding the structure of selected proteins to the best of the player’s ability (see it in action in this video).

It received big coverage recently when Foldit gamers have helped unlock the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme that the scientific community had been unable to unlock for a decade. The resulting research paper, Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players (PDF), has been published in Nature and is co-authored by the participating Foldit teams “Foldit Contenders Group” and “Foldit Void Crushers Group.” A great example of the power of crowd-based collaboration!

Update (Feb 12th 2013): Another research paper has just been published in Nature, showing that using crowdsourcing platforms such as TopCoder, an alternative to Foldit, yields a whopping 970 fold increase in speed for big data genomics sequencing algorithm. Here’s the citation: Lakhani, K. R., Boudreau, K. J., Loh, P.-R., Backstrom, L., Baldwin, C., Lonstein, E., Lydon, M., et al. (2013). Prize-based contests can provide solutions to computational biology problems. Nature biotechnology, 31(2), 108–11. doi:10.1038/nbt.2495


  1. Hi Yannig, Great blog, thanks for taking the time to do so!
    Based upon what I have seen here, I really think that you’ll find
    this piece of recent research both salient and really interesting.
    See here:
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2193115 The work
    is titled “The Theory of Crowd Capital” and it deals directly with
    many of your interests here at the blog. If nothing else, I think
    you can add it to your great “Academic representations” page! If
    you have any questions or comments, please don’t be afraid to get
    in touch! Best, JP


    1. Thank you for your comment John, much appreciated!

      I just read your paper and see it as a valuable contribution to existing knowledge about crowdsourcing. I was surprised by the wide, overarching definition you use at the beginning of your paper, but the discussion in the later parts (about innovations communities and user innovation, for example) brought me back – I agree with your Crowd Capital theory. I particularly like the fact that you theorize it as a general organizational capability that can be applied in many ways.

      Reading through your paper, I wondered if your read a paper that I mention in this blog post, it looks at crowdsourcing from a TCT perspective. Another interesting paper is this one that stems from the IS literature, it might interest you. And if you want to “illustrate” the extent to which crowdsourcing is increasingly being used, you might want to have a look at my crowdsourcing timeline of how brands use creative crowdsourcing since the mid 2000’s. It’s an ongoing WIP but definitely shows an increase of crowdsourcing utilization, even if it’s just marketing & innovation related.

      Finally, a question that I have is: do you think it is (will be) possible to quantify Crowd Capability of Crowd Capital? Could be interesting!!

      Please keep me posted about future papers, as well as the possibly resulting paper from the paper you mention in your comment, I’d be happy to learn more! Cheers,



  2. Hi Yannig, i apologize for the slightly late reply, but
    I’ve just spent the week at HICSS, introducing our work there as
    well. It’s a great conference, so you may want to keep it in mind
    for some of your future work. Nonetheless, I’m really glad to hear
    that you see some value in our work! Thanks so much for the
    recommendations of the papers, I’m not sure exactly which one’s you
    are referring to… but I’d love to take a closer look if you could
    provide me with some links or details? Likewise great suggestion
    with the timeline, that’s a great idea! Definitely, we’re thinking
    about “quantifying” and therein testing the theory right now, I
    definitely think it’s possible, it’s just a matter of finding the
    right data/measures (or collecting our own)… we’ve got a few
    provisional ideas, but if you have any ideas in this regard (or any
    other regard) we’re certainly open to other intelligent input!!!
    Keep up the great work with the blog!! Best, JP


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