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As crowdsourced user-generated content becomes an important source of data for organizations, a pressing question is how to ensure that data contributed by ordinary people outside of traditional organizational boundaries is of suitable quality to be useful for both known and unanticipated purposes. This research examines the impact of different information quality management strategies, and corresponding data collection design choices, on key dimensions of information quality in crowdsourced user-generated content. We conceptualize a contributor-centric information quality management approach focusing on instance-based data collection. We contrast it with the traditional consumer-centric fitness-for-use conceptualization of information quality that emphasizes class-based data collection. We present laboratory and field experiments conducted in a citizen science domain that demonstrate trade-offs between the quality dimensions of accuracy, completeness (including discoveries), and precision between the two information management approaches and their corresponding data collection designs. Specifically, we show that instance-based data collection results in higher accuracy, dataset completeness and number of discoveries, but this comes at the expense of lower precision. We further validate the practical value of the instance-based approach by conducting an applicability check with potential data consumers (scientists, in our context of citizen science). In a follow-up study, we show, using human experts and supervised machine learning techniques, that substantial precision gains on instance-based data can be achieved with post-processing. We conclude by discussing the benefits and limitations of different information quality and data collection design choice for information quality in crowdsourced user-generated content.
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Lukyanenko et al. 2019. “Expecting the Unexpected: Effects of Data Collection Design Choices on the Quality of Crowdsourced
User-generated Content”. Forthcoming at MIS Quarterly
Expecting the Unexpected: Effects of Data Collection Design Choices on the
Quality of Crowdsourced User-generated Content
Roman Lukyanenko*
HEC Montréal
Jeffrey Parsons
Faculty of Business, Memorial
University of Newfoundland
Yolanda F. Wiersma
Department of Biology, Memorial
University of Newfoundland
Mahed Maddah
College of Business, Florida
International University
As crowdsourced user-generated content becomes an important source of data for organizations, a
pressing question is how to ensure that data contributed by ordinary people outside of traditional
organizational boundaries is of suitable quality to be useful for both known and unanticipated
purposes. This research examines the impact of different information quality management
strategies, and corresponding data collection design choices, on key dimensions of information
quality in crowdsourced user-generated content. We conceptualize a contributor-centric
information quality management approach focusing on instance-based data collection. We contrast
it with the traditional consumer-centric fitness-for-use conceptualization of information quality
that emphasizes class-based data collection. We present laboratory and field experiments
conducted in a citizen science domain that demonstrate trade-offs between the quality dimensions
of accuracy, completeness (including discoveries), and precision between the two information
management approaches and their corresponding data collection designs. Specifically, we show
that instance-based data collection results in higher accuracy, dataset completeness and number of
discoveries, but this comes at the expense of lower precision. We further validate the practical
value of the instance-based approach by conducting an applicability check with potential data
consumers (scientists, in our context of citizen science). In a follow-up study, we show, using
human experts and supervised machine learning techniques, that substantial precision gains on
instance-based data can be achieved with post-processing. We conclude by discussing the benefits
and limitations of different information quality and data collection design choice for information
quality in crowdsourced user-generated content.
Keywords: crowdsourcing, user-generated content, citizen science, information systems design,
information quality, information completeness, information accuracy, information precision,
discovery, supervised machine learning.
Expecting the Unexpected: Effects of Data Collection Design Choices on the
Quality of Crowdsourced User-generated Content
Organizations are increasingly interested in user-generated content (UGC) - information
produced by members of the general public (the crowd), who are often unpaid and not affiliated
with the organization (Doan et al. 2011; Love and Hirschheim 2017; Prpić et al. 2015;
Surowiecki 2005). To harness UGC, organizations mine existing data, such as forums, blogs,
social media, comments, and product reviews (e.g., Abbasi et al. 2018; Brynjolfsson et al. 2016;
Gao et al. 2015; Kallinikos and Tempini 2014), or create new data collection processes through
intermediaries such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and CrowdFlower (Chittilappilly et al. 2016;
Daniel et al. 2018; Deng et al. 2016; Garcia-Molina et al. 2016; Li et al. 2016).
Of great value is crowdsourced UGC, wherein organizations develop custom information
systems (IS) to collect specific kinds of data from contributors external to the organization (see,
Kosmala et al. 2016; Lukyanenko et al. 2017; Prestopnik and Tang 2015; Prpić et al. 2015;
Wiggins and Crowston 2011). As these projects tap into personal interests (e.g., civic
responsibility, science, and health), successful projects attract reliable cohorts of contributors at
little additional cost (Clery 2011; Nov et al. 2014). For instance, CitySourced
( is a US-wide project that encourages people to report local civic issues
(e.g., crime, public safety, environmental issues) and makes this data available to participating
Crowdsourced UGC (hereafter simply UGC) often captures people’s real-world
experiences with public services, infrastructure, consumer products, or the natural environment.
The potential unconstrained, experiential nature of crowdsourced UGC contrasts with traditional
organizational data, which tends to be focused and transaction-based. Organizations can use
UGC to better understand their customers, competitors, products and services, or the social and
political environment (Brabham 2013; Goodman and Paolacci 2017; Khatib et al. 2011; Prpić et
al. 2015). However, despite the opportunity to use UGC in innovative ways, many IS designed to
collect it follow traditional design approaches common to organizational systems. Such designs
frequently rely on predetermining the categories of data to be collected and present these
categories as data entry choices that guide and constrain contributors in reporting data. This
approach can interfere with the opportunity to capture contributors’ unanticipated, unique,
experiential interactions with the phenomena they observe and report via a crowdsourcing IS.
Researchers have argued that traditional processes of managing information quality (IQ),
such as training and motivation, can break down in the context of UGC, making it difficult to
ensure data provided by online crowds is of sufficient quality to be used in organizational
decision making (Lukyanenko et al. 2014). This problem of “crowd IQhas attracted
considerable research attention (for reviews, see Daniel et al. 2018; Kosmala et al. 2016;
Lewandowski and Specht 2015; Li et al. 2016; Tilly et al. 2016), with much of the focus being
on a single dimension of IQ – information accuracy (Daniel et al. 2018; Kilian 2008;
Lukyanenko et al. 2014). Virtually nothing is known about how to capture data about
unanticipated phenomena and foster discoveries from UGC. In particular, there is a strong need
to understand how to use crowdsourced data to promote discovery without sacrificing traditional
measures of IQ. In addition to accuracy, organizations want to make sure the data provided is as
complete as possible and precise enough for the task at hand. In this paper, we examine ways in
which to promote unconstrained data collection, while preserving a high level of IQ, focusing on
the traditional dimensions of accuracy, completeness, and precision.
We examine the impact of IS design features (in particular, the data collection interface)
on the ability to capture unanticipated data, and the impact of such features on crowd IQ. While
organizations have less control over crowds than over employees, they do control the design of
data collection in custom-built systems. We seek to answer the following research question:
How can an organization capture unanticipated data about phenomena from
crowds in a way that also maintains information quality needed for
anticipated uses of data?
To address this question, we begin by considering IS design approaches for UGC and
consider how interface design decisions related to the categories of data collected can affect
aspects of IQ in UGC. We then theorize about the effect of design choices on key indicators of
data quality and the potential for capturing data that enables discovery. Subsequently, we
implement alternative design choices based on this theory, evaluate them in complementary
studies, and validate the practical utility of our work in an applicability check with practitioners.
We conclude by discussing implications for future research and practice.
Information Quality and IS Design in Crowdsourced UGC
Traditional information quality research recognizes three stakeholders: (1) data
consumers, who use data in decision making; (2) data custodians, who curate data; and (3) data
contributors, who produce data (Lee 2003; Pipino et al. 2002). In UGC settings, custom-built IS
used for data collection generally incorporate and reflect the needs of data consumers (Kosmala
et al. 2016; Lewandowski and Specht 2015). We develop a broader conceptualization of “crowd
IQ” that incorporates characteristics of UGC contributors and the crowdsourcing IS.
Researchers have long taken the perspective that organizational data are collected for use
by data consumers (Madnick et al. 2009; Strong et al. 1997; Wang and Strong 1996).
Consequently, the prevailing approach to managing IQ in UGC is “consumer-centric” (see,
Lukyanenko, Parsons, Wiersma, et al. 2016; Wiggins et al. 2013). This perspective is
understandable, as organizations develop UGC IS to achieve specific goals. The more UGC
satisfies data consumers’ needs, the better the immediate return on effort and investment
(Devillers et al. 2010; Engel and Voshell 2002; Louv et al. 2012).
The consumer-centric view is reflected in the prevailing definition of IQ as the fitness-
for-use of data by consumers for specific purposes (Chittilappilly et al. 2016; Lee et al. 2006;
Shankaranarayanan and Blake 2017; Tilly et al. 2016; Wang and Strong 1996). Consumer-
centric IQ improvement strategies include vetting and selecting contributors, training them, and
providing instructions and feedback (Lee 2003; Lee et al. 2006; Redman 1996). Under this view,
IS design focuses on ways to better satisfy data consumers’ known information needs, which
typically means constraining data collection based on the known and stable information
requirements of data consumers (Browne and Ramesh 2002).
Consumer-centric IQ and Class-based Data Collection in UGC
Consumer-centric IQ management is manifested during the design of data collection
processes by class-based approaches to data collection (Krogh et al. 1996; Parreiras and Staab
2010; Parsons and Wand 2000; Shanks et al. 2008). Class-based data collection involves a priori
specification of the kinds of phenomena to be represented in an IS, and the relevant attributes
and relationships among them (Chen 1976; Clarke et al. 2016; Olivé 2007; Wiggins et al. 2013).
Using class-based interface design features, data consumers are able to specify exactly the kind
of UGC they wish to obtain from crowds (e.g., via pre-specified classes, attributes, or
relationships). The data collected based on consumer-centric IQ are commonly at a high level of
precision (e.g., biological species, product categories, landscape features) needed for expert
analysis. Examples include eBird ( and Citysourced (
Traditional IQ research considers class-based data collection to be necessary for
achieving high IQ (Wang et al. 1995). Concerns about the potential for crowds to generate hard-
to-use “noisy” datasets (Brynjolfsson et al. 2016; Ipeirotis et al. 2010; Sheng et al. 2008) make it
reasonable to constrain data collection in UGC settings (Kosmala et al. 2016; Wiggins et al.
2013). Finally, there may be specific questions that are highly focused and for which a class-
based system is necessary. Once data consumers’ needs are captured in the design via classes,
contributors can be trained how to report information using these classes and their attributes or
relationships among them (Daniel et al. 2018; Kosmala et al. 2016; Wiggins et al. 2011).
Contributor-centric IQ and Instance-based Data Collection in UGC
Despite advantages, consumer-centric IQ and class-based data collection sometimes have
limitations. In particular, prior research has shown that class-based data collection may have a
negative impact on IQ in UGC settings, as non-expert crowds may be incapable of providing
accurate data at the level of precision (e.g., biological species) typically needed by data
consumers (e.g., scientists) (Lukyanenko et al. 2014). There is a growing call to design data
collection in UGC to be “as flexible and adaptable to the producers [of information] as possible,
while expecting a variety of content” (Tilly et al. 2016, p. 8; see also, McKinley et al. 2016;
Parsons et al. 2011).
In contrast to organizational settings, UGC offers limited opportunities to exercise tight
controls over data contributors, making traditional IQ management approaches, such as training,
less effective. In many circumstances, the primary interaction data contributors have with the
organization is through the design features and the content of the IS – the system that
contributors use voluntarily and may abandon at any time (Deng et al. 2016; Gray et al. 2016;
Wells et al. 2011). Moreover, data contributors might not be motivated or savvy enough to find a
suitable workaround when a problem is encountered (e.g., by sending an email to a
representative of the project or posting something in a discussion forum). Consequently, if the
classes used in the design do not match the views of data contributors, they may abandon efforts
at data entry or contribute data based on guesses.
Moreover, a significant part of the appeal of UGC is as a way of finding something
unexpected and new. It has been long known that front-line employees, being in direct contact
with day-to-day situations, are well-equipped at spotting unusual activity, manufacturing defects,
or process failures (Tax and Brown 1998; Trevino and Victor 1992; Tucker and Edmondson
2003). In our context, a notable ability of crowds is reporting individual experiences with objects
of interest to data consumers. Many phenomena (e.g., consumer product malfunctions, urban
crime, or drug side effects) may be observed only by contributors (Kallinikos and Tempini 2014;
Lukyanenko, Parsons, and Wiersma 2016). Furthermore, “[b]ecause citizens generally lack
formal… training, they view problems and issues in light of their own knowledge and interests,
creating fertile ground for discoveries” (Lukyanenko, Parsons, and Wiersma 2016, p. 447). We
thus observe the following paradox in UGC: non-experts may be unable to provide data using
categories determined in advance to be important for data consumers, but they have a remarkable
ability to observe unusual and unexpected phenomena. Thus, to facilitate discovery, systems
need to be open and flexible, rather than focused only on predetermined data consumers’ needs.
To support UGC projects interested in discovery, we introduce a complementary
“contributor-centric” approach to crowd IQ management. While the consumer-centric approach
seeks to maximize fitness-for-use, contributor-centric IQ management embraces heterogeneity
and low domain expertise in the crowd. By capturing the perspectives of contributors, a system
that collects UGC can be designed to be open to unexpected data, allow flexibility to collect a
greater variety of data, and enable capturing data for unanticipated uses and discovery. We
define contributor-centric IQ management as a strategy that seeks to increase the
heterogeneity and diversity of UGC by removing contribution barriers, including data input
constraints and crowd selection mechanisms, without sacrificing traditional dimensions of IQ.
Contributor-centric IQ management recognizes that, when freed from predefined data entry
constraints, crowds can still generate accurate data (at lower levels of precision). This approach
is not intended to replace traditional IQ management predicated on fitness-for-use, but offers
benefits when contributors are not equipped to provide data at the level of precision desired by
project sponsors and when unanticipated data may be important for current or future uses.
To implement “contributor-centric” IQ, data collection needs to be flexible, supporting
variable views and perspectives in heterogeneous crowds. Instance-based data collection has
been suggested as a way to store data in UGC and empirical evidence showed that when it is
used, non-experts are able to provide accurate descriptions of instances using generic classes
(e.g., bird, trees, fish) (Lukyanenko et al. 2014). Following these findings, in this paper we
suggest to implement “contributor-centric” IQ through data collection driven by instances, based
on the ontological view that instances exist independent of classes (Bunge 1977).
There has been increased interest in representations using instances and instance-based IS
(e.g., Lukyanenko et al. 2018; Parsons and Wand 2000; Saghafi 2016; Samuel et al. 2018;
Sekhavat and Parsons 2012). Building on that work, we operationally define an instance-based
IS as a system that captures information about instances (objects, individuals) via a data
collection interface that allows contributors to describe observed instances in terms of any
classes or attributes of interest at any level of precision. An instance-based IS removes the
requirement for contributors to understand and comply with predefined data collection options
(which may not match the views of data contributors). Thus, rather than focusing on specific
uses of information, quality improvements can be made by giving crowds flexibility to contribute
data as they see it. This presupposes the ability to transform heterogeneous unclassified data to
match classes of known interest to data consumers, an outcome that might be achievable by post-
processing. Importantly, it opens data collection to capturing unexpected, idiosyncratic, and
personalized perceptions of crowd members.
Instance-based and class-based data collection in UGC are complementary and each may
be effective in different scenarios. In a spectrum of possibilities, we define two extremes: (1)
open, with many unknowns, versus (2) closed, with few unknowns (see Table 1). In practice,
projects may possess both closed and open features. Contributor-centric IQ and instance-based
data collection are best pursued in open settings with weak data production controls, anonymous
or non-expert crowds, and an interest in capturing unanticipated phenomena or data. Conversely,
class-based data collection is most appropriate when training is feasible, domains are relatively
narrow in scope, and uses are established in advance and stable. Each approach comes with
trade-offs. For example, instance-based data collection may open participation to wider
audiences, but creates challenges for integrating data into traditional decision making and
analysis (Table 1). Thus, the choice for a particular application depends on the relative
importance of project dimensions.
The closed scenario is better understood as it builds upon a wealth of research on
traditional corporate data production and use. In contrast, the potential and limitations of the
open scenario are poorly understood. This lack of understanding may result in projects adopting
ineffective IQ management strategies. We focus on the open setting with the aim of theoretically
explicating and providing empirical support for the effectiveness of instance-based data
collection as a means of enacting contributor-centric IQ.
Table 1. Data collection scenarios for Instance vs. Class-based approaches
Open with many unknowns Closed with few unknowns
Large, unbounded
(e.g., entire natural history of a region)
Small, bounded
(e.g., tufted puffins in an area)
Task Open-ended
(e.g., tell me anything about an
(e.g., tag all pedestrians in a photo,
transcribe text using finite symbols)
Skills and
Open participation: non-experts and
experts in project domain
(e.g., ability to observe phenomena
and describe it using own vocabulary)
Closed Participation: experts in domain
(e.g., ability to identify instances of birds
at species level of precision)
Training Not required
(e.g., anyone can contribute data) Might sometimes be required
(e.g., users must pass tutorial to
contribute data)
consumers Uses
Unknown, evolving, some known
(e.g., collects civic
reports; municipalities access data
and use it in own ways)
Known and well-understood
(e.g., detect occurrence of specific
invasive species in a given area)
and IS
Contributor-centric Consumer-centric (fitness-for-use)
Instance-based Class-based
Significant and advanced post-
processing may be required
(e.g., machine learning may help infer
species from contributed attributes of
Significant and advanced post-
processing is generally not required
(e.g., classifications of galaxies may be
aggregated by type)
Exemplar project iSpotNature ( –
observations of wildlife worldwide eBird ( – classification of
birds primarily into pre-specified species
Theoretical Propositions
We now consider psychological mechanisms that explain how class-based and instance-
based data collection approaches affect IQ in open UGC settings. We first consider the
traditional dimensions of accuracy, precision, and dataset completeness. We then propose a new
IQ dimension – discovery (conceptualized as a facet of completeness)
Accuracy. Accuracy is central to assessment of IQ (Burton-Jones and Volkoff 2017;
Redman 1996; Wand and Wang 1996). We define a statement S(x) about a phenomenon x to be
accurate if the statement is true for x (Lukyanenko et al. 2014; Redman 1996). For example, if a
non-expert observes a Mallard duck in the wild and records it as “Blue-winged teal”, this stored
data will not be accurate, whereas labels such as “duck”, “bird”, “Mallard duck”, or “has webbed
feet” will be accurate. For organizations hoping to make decisions based on crowd data, accuracy
is critical, and it is particularly challenging to determine the accuracy of observations, especially
when they are being reported by non-experts in the domain (Kosmala et al. 2016; Lewandowski
and Specht 2015).
We expect accuracy in an instance-based IS to be higher than in a class-based one in open
UGC projects for two reasons. First, there is a high likelihood of a mismatch between the classes
familiar to a contributor (typically high-level or basic-level ones, which contributors tend to
provide with high accuracy) and those defined in the IS (typically at a level of precision
reflecting needs of expert data consumers). When required to conform to an IS-imposed class
structure, a contributor may guess and classify an observation incorrectly. Research in cognitive
psychology suggests that humans are more accurate when using classes with which they are
familiar. The most familiar classes for non-experts are basic-level categories (e.g., fly, snake,
bird, bee, tree, fish), which typically lie in the middle of a taxonomical hierarchy (e.g., “beeis a
level higher than a specific species of bee, and lower than “insect”) (Lassaline et al. 1992; Rosch
et al. 1976). Note that accuracy is not necessarily higher when more general classes are used.
Non-experts may incorrectly classify at higher levels, while correctly classifying at intermediate
ones (e.g., correctly classify an instance as a whale, but incorrectly classify it as a fish) (Bell
1981). Thus, when an IS requires information contributors to conform to a classification (driven
by anticipated uses of data), accuracy will be lower when the classes are unfamiliar to
Second, when allowed to describe both familiar and unfamiliar objects, people are
generally able to describe such objects using free-form attributes with high accuracy. This is
because discriminating among attributes of objects is a prerequisite for classifying them.
Classification is a fundamental function that allows humans to deal with the ever-changing diverse
world (Berlin et al. 1966; Harnad 2005; Mervis and Rosch 1981). As discriminating objects by
attributes is critical for successful interaction with the environment, humans have a well-developed
and highly reliable ability to “describe any object” (Wallis and Bülthoff 1999, p. 24). Thus, in the
context of crowdsourcing, even when people may be reporting on an unknown object, we can
expect the descriptions (e.g., attributes, textual comments) of such objects to be generally accurate.
This leads to:
Proposition 1: In open crowdsourced UGC projects, an instance-based IS will produce
more accurate data than will a class-based IS.
Precision. As we consider UGC projects that satisfy specific data needs, the extent to
which the resulting data are useful in addressing these needs is important. We thus consider another
IQ dimension precision (also known as level of detail or specificity) (Redman 1996; Wang and
Strong 1996). Precision refers to the level in a knowledge hierarchy to which a concept belongs
(e.g., species is more precise than genus) (Redman 1996, p. 250). In IQ research, precision is
generally viewed as independent of accuracy (i.e., American Robin is more precise than bird, but
inaccurate if the bird is a Blue Jay). The higher the precision, the more the resulting data is
potentially useful to experts for particular uses, but only if it is also accurate (Boakes et al. 2010;
Mayden 2002). For example, in projects that deal with nature, citizens are often asked to identify
organisms by species, rather than generic classes such as bird or animal (Lewandowski and Specht
2015; McKinley et al. 2016; Sullivan et al. 2009). Indeed, projects often are interested in only
some species and provide contributors with a list of desired species to select from (e.g., The Great
Sunflower Project) (Callaghan and Gawlik 2015; Sullivan et al. 2009; Swanson et al. 2015).
Compared to an instance-based IS, we propose that a class-based IS will positively affect
precision for two reasons: (1) a class-based IS may specifically require instances to be collected
at a given level of precision, whereas an instance-based IS does not require this; (2) class-based
IS are developed to satisfy specific data consumer needs, typically reflected in terms of
specialized classes that non-experts may struggle to provide, in contrast with an instance-based
IS where such constraints are absent. Correspondingly, we propose:
Proposition 2: In open crowdsourced UGC projects, a class-based IS will produce more
precise data than will an instance-based IS.
Completeness. Another major IQ dimension is completeness (Batini et al. 2009; Redman
1996; Wang and Strong 1996), defined as “the degree to which a given data collection includes
data describing the corresponding set of real-world objects (Batini et al. (2009, p. 7). We adopt
this definition and note that completeness can be assessed on a comparative basis, as different
datasets can describe the “corresponding set of real-world objects” to varying degrees. We
assume it is better to have some information about an object than no information at all.
Considering this, the class-based and instance-based approaches can be compared in terms of
two facets of completeness of UGC: (1) dataset completeness and (2) number of discoveries.
We define dataset completeness as the extent to which an IS captures all phenomena of
potential interest (for predetermined and emergent uses) to data consumers that data
contributors are willing to provide (regardless of how detailed the data about instances may be).
The phenomena of interest for a project can be specified by a (temporally or geographically
bounded) superordinate category that guides potential contributors as to the project’s scope (e.g.,
We further define number of discoveries as the number of instances captured of classes
not anticipated during the design of an IS. For example, if a contributor describes a relevant (to
data consumers) unexpected kind of organism for which no class (or set of attributes) existed in
the IS, we consider this a discovery. In our context, discovery need not mean something
completely unknown to the knowledge community, although it does not preclude this possibility
(as we demonstrate in the field experiment).
Compared to an instance-based IS, a class-based IS will negatively affect both dataset
completeness and number of discoveries for several reasons: (1) in open UGC projects, it may be
impractical to determine in advance all relevant classes (regardless of whether participants are
previously familiar with them), thereby deterring participants from reporting instances of these
classes; (2) class-based interfaces lack direct technology affordances (perceived design features
of IS matching human abilities (Leonardi 2011; Markus and Silver 2008; Norman 1983)) to
capture instances that do not match available classes, making it difficult to report such instances;
(3) the predefined classes may act as an anchor (Gilovich et al. 2002; Tversky and Kahneman
1974) - an initial starting condition that affects the information contributors subsequently provide
by (intentionally or inadvertently) signaling to the contributor that only instances of the pre-
defined classes are of interest; and (4) there is a possible mismatch between classes provided by
the class-based IS and those familiar to data contributors, preventing contributors from reporting
an instance in terms of the classes or attributes they are more familiar or comfortable with.
Accordingly, we propose:
Proposition 3: In open crowdsourced UGC projects, an instance-based IS will produce
more complete data than will a class-based IS.
Figure 1 summarizes our research propositions (assuming no post-processing of the data).
Figure 1. Impact of class-based versus instance-based modeling approaches on key IQ
dimensions (without post-hoc data processing) in open UGC projects
Empirical Studies
To evaluate the relative merits of the consumer-centric and contributor-centric
perspectives, we compare class-based and instance-based approaches in the context of an open
UGC project. We conducted four empirical studies: (1) a field experiment to evaluate
Propositions 2 and 3 (precision, dataset completeness and discoveries); (2) a laboratory
experiment (informed by the findings of the field experiment), where greater controls allowed us
to evaluate all three propositions; (3) an applicability check in which we presented the two data
collection approaches and our empirical evidence to potential data consumers and elicited their
feedback on the applicability and usefulness of each approach for their work; and (4) a study
with human experts and machine learning methods to investigate the potential usefulness of data
generated by the instance-based approach.
based IS
based IS
Field Experiment
We conducted a field experiment in the context of citizen science in biology (Bonney et
al. 2009; Silvertown 2009). This is an ideal setting for UGC IQ research, as there are established
standards of quality (e.g., biological nomenclature), a well-defined cohort of data consumers
(scientists), and relatively well-established information needs (e.g., collection of data at the
species level of analysis (Burgess et al. 2017; Levy and Germonprez 2017)). As citizen science is
a voluntary endeavor, an important challenge is how to induce data of acceptable quality while
promoting discoveries. Finally, citizen science is becoming more prominent in the IS discipline,
fueled by its societal importance (Goes 2014; Levy and Germonprez 2017; Lukyanenko et al.
2014). Despite a wealth of research, most studies on citizen science focus only on accuracy, with
scant attention to how to foster discoveries (a key objective of science).
We argue that observations collected from citizen scientists in open settings can benefit
from an instance-based approach. No study to date has compared the impact on IQ of this
approach versus a traditional class-based IS on IQ. Consistent with Proposition 3, we predict:
Hypothesis 1: Number of instances reported. The number of observations reported
using an instance-based IS (described using attributes or classes at any level) will be higher than
the number of observations reported using a class-based IS (described as biological species).
At the same time, the focus on species in class-based IS guarantees a high level of
precision (only species-level observations), whereas the instance-based IS is expected to deliver
significantly fewer species-level classes, even if contributors are familiar with the organisms, as
contributors are not directed toward this classification level. Although this might appear obvious
(participants in the instance-base condition will be less likely to report at the species level when
they have other options), it is not guaranteed. For example, participants might view the focus of
the system to be on species and try to report accordingly (even if incorrectly). Furthermore, it is
quite possible that people who voluntarily join the project have significant domain expertise and
routinely conceptualize phenomena in terms of specialized classes. We hypothesize:
Hypothesis 2: Information Precision. The proportion of species-level observations
reported using a class-based IS will be higher then the proportion of species-level observations
reported via an instance-based IS.
A field experiment also makes it possible to explore the potential for crowds to report
information about unanticipated phenomena. Here, we compare class-based versus instance-
based IS in terms of the extent to which they capture data about unanticipated phenomena. To
ensure an equitable and conservative comparison, we focus on unanticipated (i.e., not previously
included in the project schema) species-level classes. This comparison is conservative, as
species-level identification is the explicit focus of the class-based IS, but is not emphasized in the
instance-based IS. Thus, one could argue that it should be more natural for the class-based IS to
produce more unanticipated species. Following the arguments presented above, and consistent
with Proposition 2, we hypothesize:
Hypothesis 3: Number of instances of unanticipated species stored. The number of
observations of unanticipated biological species reported using an instance-based IS will be
higher than the number of observations of unanticipated biological species reported using a
class-based IS (containing classes known to be useful to data consumers).
Independent Variables
To evaluate the proposed hypotheses, we used data from a web-based citizen science
project, NL Nature ( The project collects data on biodiversity in a region
based on nature sightings (e.g., plants and animals). Importantly, the project was class-based for
the four years preceding the experiment. We thus had an ecologically valid class-based project
schema to compare with instance-based collection.
The decision to conduct the experiment was made one year prior to the start of data
collection. The intervening time was spent in planning and development. Preceding the launch of
the redesigned NL Nature, activity on the website was low. We redesigned NL Nature and
launched the experiment in late spring, when people spend more time outdoors.
We developed two custom data collection interfaces: a class-based interface using
species-level data entry, and an instance-based interface. The interfaces were designed to be
visually similar and were dynamically generated from the same master template. Potential
contributors (citizen scientists) were randomly assigned to one of the two data collection
interfaces upon registration and remained in that condition for the duration of the experiment.
The data entry form required authentication to ensure that contributors were not exposed to
different conditions. All contributors received equal access to other areas of the project (e.g.,
internal messaging system, forum) and equal support from the project sponsors. This ensured
equivalent facilitating conditions (Venkatesh et al. 2003) across the groups.
We first built a class-based interface following the common practice of asking
contributors to select a species (i.e., class) from a predefined list1. As it is possible a contributor
might not know or be confident in a species-level identification, we provided an explicit option
(with clear instructions) to bypass the species-level classification by clicking on the "Unknown
or uncertain species" checkbox below the data entry field (see Figure 2 left panel). We further
instructed participants who checked the box to use the “comments” field to specify any class to
1 Examples of such projects include, and many projects on the platform (see Appendix C for more examples of projects).
which they believed the instance belonged. This was done to prevent what we believed might be
a strong impediment to participation by non-experts in the class-based condition (although it
weakens our treatment compared to an inflexible class-based interface, thereby providing a
conservative test of the effect of our treatment). However, consistent with the logic of consumer-
centric IQ, we only counted species-level observations – to provide data at the level of specificity
desired by target data consumers. In the instance-based condition, we instructed participants to
provide attributes and, if possible, classes (Figure 2, right panel). This allowed contributors to
report sightings even if they could not determine a class for the instance observed.
Figure 2. Data entry interfaces in the NL Nature class-based and instance-based conditions
in both field and laboratory experiments*
Class-based (the species name could be
typed in the text box in this condition)
Instance-based (any attribute or class could be
typed in the text box in this condition)
* Font sizes and the interactive functionality were identical across the conditions (based on the
same underlying template).
The initial list of species was developed by an ecology professor - an expert in local
natural history - when the project was launched. During the four years preceding the field
experiment, the list was updated periodically by the website members, who were encouraged to
suggest new species (using the comments field available in the older version of NL Nature).
Biologists also reviewed the list periodically and updated it as needed. By the time the
experiment began, the species list was stable with very infrequent updates and contained 343
species-level classes. While we believe the list of classes was ecologically valid, it was also
incomplete, as not every kind of organism which the crowd could potentially report was
In both conditions, to see a list of options (classes or attributes) contributors were
instructed to begin typing in the textbox and click "Add" or press "Enter" when finished. As soon
as more than two characters were entered, a suggestion box appeared with the available (stored)
classes or attributes containing the string. In the class-based condition, participants were required
to select an item from the list (or supply a new class in the comments). In the instance-based
condition, a participant could select an item from the list or provide new attributes and classes
via direct entry. Two sample records created in both interfaces are shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Samples of real observations on NL Nature
A sighting reported via class-based interface
A sighting reported via instance-based interface
We used the traditional class-based condition as a template for the instance-based one, as
it was more important to ensure equivalence across conditions than to produce the most effective
implementation of the instance-based interface.
Participation was voluntary and anonymous. To use NL Nature, participants first
accepted a consent form outlining the nature of their interaction with the website. Those who
didn’t were unable to contribute data. No incentives for participation were provided and no
personally identifying information was collected. The existence of the experimental
manipulation was not disclosed. We also monitored all contributor correspondence available
through the website and social media that reference the project for evidence of contributors
becoming aware of different interfaces; we found no such evidence.
Our analysis is based on data provided by the website members who accepted the consent
form after the manipulations outlined above took effect. Over a six-month period, 230 members
accepted the consent form and began to participate. Contributors were randomly assigned into
the two study conditions2. Some participants registered, but never landed on the observation
collection page and, hence, were not actually exposed to manipulation (determined by analyzing
server logs). The final numbers of participants who visited one of the two observation collection
interfaces at least once were 42 in the class-based condition and 39 in the instance-based
condition. The following analysis is based on the information provided by these 81 contributors.
While we did not require contributors to provide demographics, some volunteered this
information. Fifteen participants indicated their age (mean 50.87, SD 15.54). Seventeen
participants indicated how long they lived in the targeted geographic region (mean 18.85, SD
17.30). Fourteen participants provided the hours per week spent outdoors (mean 19.14, SD
2 Approximately 30% of the members who accepted the consent during the study period were
randomly assigned to a third condition to test hypotheses outside the scope of this paper.
15.54). In sum, those who provided demographics were mature and experienced.
To evaluate H1, we analyzed observations (i.e., one observation is one sighting of one or
more organisms that could be classified or described using attributes, irrespective of how much
data was provided) provided by 81 participants exposed to the two conditions. In the class-based
condition, we removed non-species observations (i.e., cases where participants inserted a class in
the comments box, but clicked “Unknown or uncertain species” in the data entry field) from the
count of observations for these contributors, as they would not have been captured in a system
only allowing species-level classification; we kept all the species classes (including seven
entered using the comments box). Table 2 reports the number of contributions in each condition.
Table 2. Number of observations by condition
Experimental Condition
No of users
St. dev.
We tested the assumption of normality in the data using the Shapiro-Wilks test. In each
condition, the distribution of observations per contributor significantly deviated from normal (W
= 0.690 and p-value < 0.001 for the class-based and W = 0.244 and p < 0.001 for the instance-
based condition). We also note the presence of outliers in each condition.3 As seen from Table 2,
in both cases the distributions are skewed and leptokurtic. This was confirmed using
Kolmogorov-Smirnov and Anderson-Darling goodness-of-fit statistics. Indeed, the top four
3 We defined data points as outliers if they are 1.5*interquartile range above the third quartile or below the
first quartile (Martinez et al. 2004). The following frequencies of observations per user are outliers in the
instance-based condition: 236, 39, 21 and 19; and in the class-based condition 12 9, 7, 7, 6, 6, 5 and 4. We
also verified that the most extreme value is a significant outlier using Grubbs' test.
contributors in the instance-based condition produced 80.8% of observations in that condition.
These results are not surprising: long-tail distributions have been observed consistently in
other user-generated datasets (Brynjolfsson et al. 2016; Dewan and Ramaprasad 2012; Johnson
et al. 2014; Meijer et al. 2009), including citizen science projects (Clow and Makriyannis 2011;
Cooper et al. 2011). However, the instance-based condition has greater mean, variance, skewness
and kurtosis (Table 2). Figure 4 shows that contributors in the instance-based condition tended to
contribute a higher number of observations than those in the class-based condition, and fewer
contributors in the instance-based condition contributed one or zero observations.
To determine if the difference in the number of observations per contributor is significant
between conditions we used the exact permutation test, which diminishes the impact of absolute
values (Good 2001) and is suitable when data are not normally distributed, sample sizes are low
or medium, and outliers and ties (i.e., same values in two samples, as in Figure 4) are present.
Based on the exact permutation test of observations per contributor between the two conditions,
the p-value is 0.033, indicating that contributors in the instance-based condition provided
significantly more observations than those in the species-based condition. As Figure 4 indicates,
the instance-based condition produced a greater number of high and midrange contributors, and
had a shorter tail. This supports Hypothesis 1.
Figure 4. Observation frequencies (y-axis) ranked by user (x-axis) in each condition
As expected, the class-based interface produced significantly greater precision. Eighty-
seven (93.5%) observations in this condition were at the species level (here, we included six
additional observations that were reported at levels more general than species). In contrast, of the
390 observations in the instance-based condition, 179 (46%) were not classified at the species
level (χ2= 49.44, p < 0.001). This supports Hypothesis 2 and Proposition 2 (precision).
We further analyzed the categories and attributes provided to identify specific causes of
lower performance in the class-based group. We observed three behavioral patterns contributing
to lower dataset completeness. First, since the class-based model constrains contributor input to
predefined classes and attributes, contributors may not be able to record instances unless they
provide classes that are congruent with the predefined structure in an IS. Evidence for this comes
from a comparison of classes contributors attempted to enter in the dynamic textbox to the
classes defined in the IS. While we specifically instructed contributors to provide species-level
responses and identification at that level is the prevailing practice in natural history citizen
science, some still attempted to provide classes at other levels. These were generally at higher
levels in the classification hierarchy (e.g., “slug”, “earwig”), potentially reflecting classification
uncertainty (e.g., due to conditions of observation) or lower levels of domain expertise.
The second observed pattern was that, when facing a structure incongruent with their
own, some contributors changed the original submission. In several cases, this resulted in a
failure to capture observations. For example, in one case a contributor began with typing "otter"
(non-species level) and the entry was rejected by the system. This person then proceeded to
record "Little Brown Bat" under the same observation ID. Another contributor began with "black
bear scat", and after two unsuccessful attempts, typed "Black Bear". In all such cases, the
original input was changed to conform to the classification choices available in the IS.
Finally, the lack of direct affordances to add new classes and attributes in class-based IS
further hampered the ability to contribute. Our results offer some evidence for this. In six cases,
contributors in the class-based condition bypassed species identification (e.g., presumably to
provide a novel species level class), but then failed to provide any species-level labels (e.g.,
contributors might have become distracted). These cases were also excluded from the final
count, further expanding the difference in the number of observations between the conditions.
These patterns were absent in the instance-based condition. Many classes provided in the
instance-based condition were at taxonomic levels higher than species. As mentioned before, 179
(46%) of the observations in the instance-based condition were not classified at the species level.
For these observations, contributors provided 583 classes and 69 attributes (222 distinct classes
and 43 unique attributes). Among the classes provided, 110 were at the basic level (e.g., fly, bird,
tree, fish, and spider). Thus, our field results are consistent with Proposition 1, as we expect
basic level classes and attributes to be highly accurate (we further evaluate accuracy through a
lab experiment, as described below).
Hypothesis 3 posited that a greater number of unanticipated species would be reported in
the instance-based condition. Contributors in both conditions provided 997 attributes and classes
including 87 in the class-based and 910 in the instance-based condition. Of these, 701 attributes
and classes did not exist in the schema or data and were suggested additions. This was done
directly by contributors in the instance-based condition and indirectly (via comments to an
observation) by those in the class-based condition.
During the experiment, 126 unanticipated (i.e., not contained in the list of species
available in the class-based condition) species-level classes were suggested, of which 119 came
from contributors in the instance-based condition and seven from those in the class-based
condition (see Table 3). In each condition, the distribution of unanticipated species per
contributor significantly deviates from normal (W = 0.430 and p-value<0.001 for the class-based
condition and W = 0.232 and p<0.001 for the instance-based condition). The distribution is long-
tailed in the instance-based condition (using Kolmogorov-Smirnov and Anderson-Darling
goodness-of-fit) and uniform (Chi-squared = 47, Monte Carlo p = 0.424) in the class-based
condition. Based on the exact permutation test, the number of unanticipated species is
significantly greater in the instance-based condition (p = 0.007), supporting Hypothesis 3. This
suggests that the instance-based approach to capturing data is more effective for capturing data
about unanticipated phenomena of interest.
Table 3. Number of unanticipated species reported by condition
Experimental Condition
No of users in condition
Unanticipated Species
St. dev.
Contributors also provided interesting (and potentially useful to data consumers) attributes
for some sightings. Many appeared to augment the classes provided and offered additional
information not inferable from the classification labels:
attributes describing behavior of the instances observed (e.g., mating, hopping);
attributes describing something unusual about an instance (e.g., tagged, has one antler);
attributes describing the environment / location of the instance (e.g., near highway, near
bike trail).
As these attributes cannot be inferred from knowing the species, they constitute information
beyond what could be collected in a traditional class-based interface.
Several sightings of biological significance were reported during the experiment. These
included unexpected distributions of species (e.g., vagrant birds, fish and insects). In addition, a
species of mosquito new to the geographic area of the study was identified based on a reported
sighting. The online sighting led to physical specimen collection by entomologists in the area
where the sighting was reported. From this, a species of an Asian mosquito not previously
recorded in this region of North America was confirmed (Fielden et al. 2015). Likewise, a
possibly new (to the world) species of wingless wasp was reported, one with features not
matching known species. Although this could not be confirmed from a web sighting, the sighting
helps focus resources to obtain a specimen to confirm this discovery. Notably, all these occurred
in the instance-based condition. Finally, some organisms suggested by the instance-based
contributors belonged to groups underrepresented in the original project schema, such as insects.
Limitations of the Field Experiment and Further Hypothesis Development
The field experiment provided insights on the impact of different data collection
approaches on information completeness. However, it had four notable limitations. First, despite
efforts to attract members of the general public, the majority of participants had a relatively high
level of biology expertise. Much of the data provided was at the species level. This level of
granularity is natural for domain experts, whereas novices are more comfortable with more
generic classes (Lukyanenko et al. 2014).
Second, we could not determine what participants actually observed, making it
impossible to assess observation accuracy. The greater number of observations reported in the
instance-based condition during the field study might have come at the expense of accuracy.
Third, in the field setting we could not manipulate (or even measure confidently)
information contributors’ abilities. Specifically, a key assumption in citizen science UGC is
familiarity with the domain of interest to the project. Empirical studies in UGC demonstrate that
familiarity with the classes results in greater classification accuracy (Lewandowski and Specht
2015; Lukyanenko et al. 2014). Following the three propositions, we expect that when domain
familiarity is high, both accuracy and completeness will be high, irrespective of the type of
interface used. In contrast, when domain familiarity is low, we expect that accuracy and
completeness will be high only when data contributors use an instance-based data collection
interface. We hypothesize:
Hypothesis 4: Accuracy. (a) Accuracy of observations in a class-based IS will be higher
when a contributor has higher familiarity with the instances reported than when an observer has
lower familiarity with the instances; (b) Accuracy of observations in an instance-based IS will be
independent of the level of contributor familiarity with the instances reported.
While the list of classes in the field experiment was ecologically valid, it was also
incomplete. We hypothesized the effects on completeness when schema is complete (i.e., has all
the species classes for every instance observed), but participants may not be familiar with all
classes. We thus predict that the number of instances reported will be higher in a class-based IS
for those organisms highly familiar to contributors than for organisms unfamiliar to contributors.
In contrast, we predict that in an instance-based IS, there will be no difference in the number of
instances reported for familiar versus unfamiliar organisms. Hence:
Hypothesis 5: Dataset completeness (number of instances reported). (a) The number
of instances reported via a class-based IS will be higher when a contributor has higher familiarity
with the instances reported than when a contributor has lower familiarity with the instances; (b)
The number of instances reported via an instance-based IS will be independent of the familiarity
the contributor has with the instances reported.
Finally, paralleling the field experiment, we hypothesize:
Hypothesis 6: Information precision. The proportion of species-level observations
reported using a class-based IS will be higher then the proportion of species-level observations
reported via an instance-based IS.
Fourth, field settings offered limited ability to understand contributors’ reactions to
interfaces driven by different IQ approaches and explore psychological mechanisms that mediate
the relationship between data collection interface features and IQ dimensions. A laboratory
setting allows us to better understand the potential impact of class-based versus instance-based
interfaces on self-reported measures of domain knowledge and behavioral intention (e.g.,
familiarity with local wildlife, self-reported biology expertise, ease-of-use of the interface, and
probability of recording real sightings in the future using the IS). For example, lower dataset
completeness in the class-based condition could be due to data contributors’ perception of lower
self-efficacy in the domain. It is reasonable to expect that, when forced to use unfamiliar
classification choices (i.e., biological species) in the class-based condition, non-experts felt
inadequate in their ability to report information accurately. Indeed, we posit that imposing a
class-based interface on data contributors undermines their perception of their own domain
expertise in the domain. We also conjecture that a class-based interface will, in the context of
low domain expertise, negatively affect usage intentions.
Laboratory Experiment
We conducted a follow-up laboratory study using the same NL Nature website employed
in the field study. As in the field experiment, we randomly assigned study participants to either
the class-based or the instance-based version of NL Nature.
We created three sets of six images of plants and animals found in the region covered by
NL Nature (Table 4). The organisms were selected by one of the authors, an ecology professor
who is an expert in local natural history. Each set contained one insect, one flower, one berry and
three birds. Set 1 (high familiarity) included species we expected would be highly familiar and
easy to identify accurately at the desired (species) level of precision. Set 2 (moderate familiarity)
included species that were expected to be moderately familiar, in that they are highly abundant
and commonly seen in the region, but which we expected non-experts not to be as skilled in
identifying. Set 3 (low familiarity) was comprised of unfamiliar species, either because they are
extremely rare or not easily observed. We pre-tested our sets of images with 20 students and
faculty to assess our groupings. In these pre-tests, we provided participants with randomly
ordered photographs of organisms to be used in the study and asked them to sort them in three
groups corresponding to our conditions. Participants consistently sorted the materials according
to our expectations. We further verified familiarity in the manipulation check (discussed below).
Participants (n=108) were students recruited from business classes to ensure lack of
biology expertise. Each experimental session lasted approximately 20 minutes and took place in
a computer lab. Participants were introduced to the NL Nature website and asked to set up an
account. On first logging in, participants were randomly assigned to either the instance-based or
class-based condition. In each session, one of the three sets of images (highly familiar,
moderately familiar, unfamiliar) was used (i.e., we had six experimental conditions). Each image
was shown on a screen for 40 seconds. This time was deemed adequate based on a pilot.
Table 4. Species within each of the three groupings in the laboratory experiment
Highly familiar
Moderately familiar
American Robin
Red-breasted nuthatch
Lapland Longspur
Common dandelion
Long’s Braya
Ladybird beetle
Common Black Beetle
Tiger Beetle
Blue Jay
Northern Flicker
Northern Shrike
Mallard Duck
Greater Scaup
Ring-necked Duck
For each image, participants were asked to report the sighting using the NL Nature
website. Following this, all six images were shown again on the screen and participants were
asked to complete a questionnaire asking them how many of the organisms they felt they could
identify and how many they were familiar with (i.e., they had seen before). They were also asked
to indicate (on a 7-point Likert scale) their self-assessed familiarity and expertise in the natural
history of the province, as well as their opinions of the website (ease of use, likelihood of
contributing real sightings in the future). Finally, we asked a series of biographical questions
(e.g., age, gender, university major). Table 5 summarizes the background of participants.
Table 5. Laboratory experiment participant characteristics
Standard Deviation
University-level Biology courses taken
Hours spent outdoor per week
Total years lived in local area
Familiarity with local wildlife (7 point scale)
Expertise in local biology (7 point scale)
Our experimental groupings of the stimuli into three levels of familiarity were further
validated by the self-reported results. When asked what number of organisms they felt they could
identify, responses were in the predicted order (see Tables 6 and Table 7), with no significant
difference between medium and low levels of familiarity. As well, the number of organisms
deemed to appear familiar” (i.e., they had seen them before) was consistent with our
experimental groupings (Table 7), with significant differences between the 3 sets of stimuli, but
not between experimental conditions (class vs. instance-based). We also tested the interaction
between the interface condition and the manipulation check variables and found no significant
effects – indicating that manipulation was not affected by the data collection condition (e.g.,
participants perceived high familiarity higher than medium and low familiarity, irrespective of
whether they were assigned to the instance-based or class-based IS).
Table 6. Main effect manipulation check for familiarity
Variable F-Value
(P-Value) Data entry
Highly Familiar
Somewhat Familiar
Mean Std.
Mean Std. Dev. Mean Std.
Number of
organisms can
ID at species-
based 5.06 1.31 1.89 1.41 1.47 1.63
Number of
organisms seen
5.33 0.91 3.56 1.50 1.88 1.58
Note: all demographic variables were used as covariates.
Table 7. Between group analysis of the manipulation check for the familiarity variable
CB: Class based condition; IB: Instance-based condition, HF: Highly familiar organisms group;
SF: medium (somewhat) familiar organisms group; U: unfamiliar organisms group ±
Number of organisms can ID at
CB-HF 5.11
CB-SF *** 1.89
CB-U *** 1.17
IB-HF *** *** 5.06
IB-SF *** *** 1.89
IB-U *** *** 1.44
Number of organisms seen before
CB-HF 5.56
CB-SF *** 3.67
CB-U *** * 2.33
IB-HF ** *** 5.33
IB-SF *** ** 3.56
IB-U *** ** *** ** 1.89
± Test based on Post hoc Tukey analysis; diagonal cells show means;
* Significant at p<0.05,** Significant at p<0.01,*** Significant at p<0.001.
The data were cross-referenced to the images shown to assess accuracy. Significance
testing for differences within and between experimental groupings and conditions was carried
using MANCOVA with post-hoc multiple comparisons using Tukey HSD, with alpha = 0.05. To
test our hypotheses, we analyzed all responses provided through the two interfaces across the
three familiarity options. Accuracy was measured as the percentage of correct categorical
responses, where a response was considered correct if it accorded with biological convention,
irrespective of the taxonomic level at which the response was given. For example, ‘American
Robin’ and ‘bird’ were both considered correct for American Robin, but a response of ‘American
Robin’ was coded as incorrect for Blue Jay. We excluded attributes from the comparison of the
class-based vs instance-based condition as the former did not elicit attributes and, as we expected
attributes to be mostly accurate (see results below), their inclusion would increase the difference
between conditions even further. Completeness was measured as the percentage of times any
response (correct or incorrect) was provided for a particular organism. In both interfaces,
participants had the option to skip an image and not provide any classification labels. In the
class-based condition, participants sometimes did not provide any data for organisms, as
indicated in Table 8. Precision was measured as the percentage of classification responses
(regardless of response correctness) at the species level.
Table 8. MANCOVA results for the laboratory experiment’s dependent variables
Variable F-test
Data entry
interface Highly Familiar Somewhat Familiar Unfamiliar
Mean Std.
Mean St.
Mean Std.
(0.000) Class-
0.8 0.22 0.84 0.1 0.10 9.71 0.0 0.05 12.73
1.0 0.04 1.0 0.06 1.0 0.07
1.0 0.09 0.44 0.7 0.24 1.68 0.4 0.30 2.72
1.0 0.00 1.0 0.00 1.0 0.00
1.0 0.00 4.19 1.0 0.00 13.82 1.0 0.00 12.28
0.3 0.22 0.1 0.09 0.0 0.08
Note: Means and Standard Deviations are percentages scaled to 0-1. Effect sizes are corrected Cohen’s D
values, where <0.2 are considered “small”, 0.5 “medium”, 0.8 “large” and over 2 “huge” (Sawilowsky
2009). Since samples N<50 can inflate effect sizes, we applied a correction to compensate for this
(Hackshaw 2008); the effect sizes remain very large after the correction.
Table 9. Between group analysis for the laboratory experiment’s dependent variables±
± Test based on Post hoc Tukey analysis; diagonal cells show means (scaled percentages); CB class-
based condition; IB-instance-based condition; HF – highly-familiar condition, SF - somewhat familiar
condition, U - unfamiliar condition. * Significant at p<0.05; ** Significant at p<0.01; *** Significant at
The results provide strong evidence of the impact of data collection interface on accuracy,
precision and completeness (Table 8). The “huge” effect sizes further demonstrate the considerable
impact of data collection choices on IQ. A comparison between the groups (Table 9) shows that
high accuracy in the class-based interface was only attained in the highly familiar condition, and
was extremely low (almost 0) in both moderately familiar and unfamiliar conditions. Similarly,
dataset completeness was only high in the class-based interface for the highly familiar condition
and declined for the other two conditions. In contrast, both accuracy and completeness were
extremely high (close to 100%) in the instance-based IS across all levels of familiarity. Here,
higher completeness and accuracy is a result of contributors being allowed to contribute data at
the level at which they are familiar; many responses in the instance-based condition were at a
generic (e.g., basic) level. It is also notable that the instance-based condition produced four times
more responses than the class-based condition, where participants were limited to one
classification label. However, as expected the instance-based condition yielded few responses
considered “useful(i.e., with a high level of precision) to data consumers, and these were mostly
for the familiar organisms.
Overall, the results provide support for all hypotheses and indicate a strong contingent
relationship between accuracy, completeness and information contributors’ domain familiarity
for the class-based IS, but not the instance-based one. This indicates a greater fit of the instance-
based IS with highly variable and heterogeneous capabilities of the crowd. At the same time,
lower precision in this condition indicates potential difficulty in making this data usable and
useful for data consumers. As we argued using cognitive theory, humans are generally accurate
when describing both familiar and unfamiliar objects using attributes. Our experiment offers
strong support for this claim. To obtain accuracy of attributes, two of the authors of the paper
independently coded 824 attributes reported in the three instance-based conditions as either
correctly describing (1) or not (0) an organism shown on the image. The resulting Cohen’s kappa
was 0.80, which is considered “substantial agreement” (Landis and Koch 1977). Inconsistencies
were reconciled by an independent coder not familiar with the hypotheses.
Accuracy of attributes was 94.9% in the highly-familiar, 98.4% in the somewhat familiar,
and 98.4% in the unfamiliar conditions. This means that the attributes were generally accurate
irrespective of the familiarity, mirroring the pattern observed for classes in the three instance-
based conditions. This is in contrast with the class-based IS, where accuracy was strongly
contingent on familiarity. We conclude that non-experts can accurately describe familiar and
unfamiliar phenomena using an instance-based IS via a combination of classes and attributes.
We also analyzed the exploratory variables. We did not find any evidence that class-
based versus instance-based IS affected perceptions of the ease-of-use of the interface or the
reported probability of using NL Nature in the future. This eliminates a potential alternative
explanation for the overall findings in the laboratory and field experiments (differences in the
usability of the two interfaces). However, the results somewhat surprisingly indicate that
familiarity with the stimuli presented can affect perceptions of familiarity with the subject
domain. In particular, there was a consistent significant drop in the self-reported familiarity with
wildlife and expertise in local biology between the highly familiar versus the somewhat and
unfamiliar conditions. These results open new opportunities for future research.
Exploring the Usefulness of Instance-based Data: An Applicability Check
In addition to determining whether attribute data could be transformed to a form useful to
data consumers (species level classification for biologists in our case), we conducted an
applicability check (Rosemann and Vessey 2008) to explore perceptions about the potential uses
and usefulness of data collected using an instance-based approach (versus a class-based
approach) among potential consumers of UGC. We recruited participants from a university
academic unit to which none of the authors belonged, and which also represented a discipline in
which researchers are familiar with applying citizen science/crowdsourcing (a geography
department). Participants were invited to attend a seminar and discussion forum which was
advertised via departmental email lists, an events announcement webpage and posters in the
building. Details on the participants and procedure are provided in Appendix A.
As part of the applicability check, we gave a short presentation in two parts: (1) a
description of the class-based and instance-based approaches, and (2) a summary of our
experiments and results. At the end of each part, we posed questions to participants to get
feedback on two issues – the extent to which they perceived instance-based data collection to be
relevant and applicable to the practice of citizen science, and the extent to which the results of
the experiments were relevant and applicable to the practice of citizen science. In addition to oral
comments, we distributed a questionnaire to get feedback on specific strengths and limitations of
each data collection approach; ten participants returned questionnaires (Table A-1 of Appendix
A contains both the questions and a summary of the responses).
Participants agreed that the instance-based data collection approach is relevant and
applicable to the practice of citizen science (mean response of 6.0 on a seven-point scale, where
seven was labeled “strongly agree”). Likewise, participants agreed that the results of the
experiments we presented were relevant and applicable to the practice of citizen science (also 6.0
on a seven-point scale). These results indicate that participants viewed the instance-based
approach as potentially valuable in the context of collecting citizen science data.
The discussion and questionnaire responses exposed further details about participants’
views on the data collection approaches and experimental findings. Specifically, participants
noted the flexibility of the instance-based approach in accommodating unanticipated data. One
respondent noted the approach would be useful “to document species diversity and new invasive
species,” while another stated that it “can help you obtain data you never considered as
important.” Participants also felt the instance-based approach encourages participation by people
who are not familiar with the classes of interest to the researchers. One respondent stated that it
“does not deter people who are not knowledgeable on the topic” and another indicated it will
“allow non-experts to contribute.” Two respondents commented on the applicability of the
instance-based approach to projects they had worked on. In the first case, a researcher studying
ocean plastics indicated that it was impossible to anticipate a complete set of classes for
phenomena that citizen scientists might encounter on a beach. In the second case, a researcher
studying deep sea sponges reflected on a failed project in which he worked with fishers who
pulled sponges up with their fishing gear. Despite being given keys and images to classify
sponges by species, participants in that project were unable to provide high quality data due to
the difficulty in using images to make positive species identification.
At the same time, concerns were expressed about the need for post-processing to make
instance-based data useful for the goals of data consumers (scientists), and the likelihood that the
data collected would be messy. As one respondent noted “you might get a lot of data that are not
very useful. You then might have to spend more time on data cleaning and post-processing.”
Nonetheless, scientists recognized that this additional effort may be worthwhile considering the
benefits (i.e., to discovery, user participation) our approach may bring.
Exploring Usefulness of Instance-based Data: Classification by Experts and Machines
An important concern arising from contributor-centric, instance-based data collection is
the extent to which the resulting data are useful to data consumers. Since both the laboratory and
field experiments show that precision suffers, it is important to know whether additional
processing can produce accurate classifications at the desired level. To answer this question, we
conducted a study in which biology experts were asked to infer classes based on attributes of
observed organisms generated by citizen scientists. In addition, because domain expertise is
scarce, we investigated the potential for classification using machine learning.4
To assess whether experts could accurately classify species based on attribute data, we
conducted one-on-one interviews with local natural history experts. We selected 16 organisms
from a dataset collected in a previous study and designed the interview as a “guessing game”
(detailed procedure explained in Appendix B), in which attributes were revealed one at a time.
After each attribute was revealed, participants were asked to identify the organism (if possible),
indicate if they believed it was one of N species, and indicate their confidence in the level of
precision provided (see Appendix B).
Overall, the experts were able to identify an average of 40.7% (± 10.3 s.d.) of the
organisms based on the attributes provided (i.e., without being shown the photograph). Our
experts tended to be experts in one taxonomic area (e.g., birds, but not plants), thus they could
not always correctly classify the images (overall correct identification of specimens in the photos
was 59.4% (s.d 14.7)). When we consider only cases when experts were able to positively
identify the species after viewing the debriefing photograph, the experts were able to infer
59.79% (± 34.0 s.d.) of species from the attributes. The similarity in the correct classification
scores based on attributes vs. seeing the image suggests that when experts know a species group,
4 Other approaches to moving from observations to classes of interest exist. For example, the
classification task can be crowdsourced to other participants, as is done in iNaturalist
they can classify it quite well based only on attributes provided by non-experts. In addition, even
for organisms for which experts had low to no correct classification, final precision was quite
high, meaning that experts could come up with a limited list (usually less than five) of species
that fit the attributes provided. Although perfect species-level identification may not always be
possible based on attributes provided by non-experts, a limited list (usually of closely related
species) can still have utility for many ecological research questions. The results provide strong
evidence of the utility of post-processing data generated by the instance-based approach for
reducing classification uncertainty.
To prepare the data for machine learning (ML), we converted the attribute data set into an
attribute matrix, where attributes were assigned ‘1’ if a particular participant used that attribute
to describe the species of interest and ‘0’ otherwise. Each row represents attributes (with the
associated basic-level category) provided by one of the 125 non-expert data contributors.
To ensure accessibility of our approach to data consumers, we applied a variety of
common ML algorithms, including neural networks, support vector machines, random forests,
boosting using decision trees and naïve Bayes algorithms (Provost and Fawcett 2013). The
average classification accuracy was above 70%. The top performing algorithm (Appendix B,
Table B-1) was a boosted decision tree classifier, which achieved an average F-measure of 0.76
0.12 s.d.) across 16 species (based on 10 fold cross-validation and 50 boosting iterations).
A direct comparison between human and machine performance is not meaningful since
ML worked with 16 finite targets (species), whereas experts had to draw from their knowledge of
all possible organisms in a local area. However, the results suggest that, while the immediate
data obtained from the instance-based approach may have low precision, it can be improved by
human annotation and/or applying common, off-the shelf ML techniques.
The four studies demonstrate advantages of contributor-focused IQ management
supported by instance-based data collection for open data collection from non-experts.
The instance-based approach appears to be more effective at capturing unanticipated
phenomena. Contributors in the instance-based condition of the field experiment reported 17
times more observations of unanticipated species (new to the project) than those in the class-
based condition, including the discovery of a new (to the region) species of mosquito and a
possibly new (to science) species of wasp. Interestingly, some of the new instances logged by the
instance-based contributors belonged to groups poorly represented in the project schema,
including spiders, flies, and mosquitoes. These readily observable organisms were rarely
reported in the four years the project operated preceding the experiment. A widely-held
assumption in natural history-focused citizen science holds that non-experts mostly report
"charismatic" organisms, fueling concerns that citizen science produces a distorted view of
biodiversity (Boakes et al. 2010; Galloway et al. 2006). However, some of these distortions
might be due to anchoring biases (Allen and Parsons 2010; Gigerenzer and Todd 1999; Gilovich
et al. 2002) introduced during the data collection design. As we see from the class-based data,
people stick closely to pre-defined options and fail to explore the domain of the project more
fully. In contrast, open data collection that does not rely on a fixed class structure encourages
discovery, as it does not present cues that might narrow the focus of data collection.
Importantly, the tendency of instance-based data collection to capture more unanticipated
insights does not come at the expense of accuracy and dataset completeness. Indeed, the field
and laboratory experiments strongly suggest that when given freedom, non-experts are able to
provide data with high accuracy and completeness. Moreover, when using instance-based data
collection, accuracy is not contingent on expertise or familiarity, as non-experts use a variety of
generic classes and attributes to describe both familiar and unfamiliar organisms.
In contrast, the differences in accuracy and completeness within the class-based
laboratory condition depended on familiarity with the organisms. This suggest that, when non-
experts are forced to classify at a level determined by scientific considerations (e.g., the species
level), data quality suffers. Non-experts can only contribute class-based data accurately when
they are highly familiar with the classes in question. Hence, UGC projects that require
contributors to classify at the level required by the project will either have to restrict participation
to amateur experts (e.g., skilled birdwatchers) or risk inaccurate or incomplete data, even when
the participants are confident in the quality of their contributions.
Furthermore, being familiar with some domain objects does not guarantee familiarity
with all of them. If the project is collecting information on a broad domain (e.g., local nature,
health, astronomy), it would be unlikely that even expert contributors would be familiar with
every aspect of this domain (note our study with experts), especially when new objects and
classes are likely to be observed. In such cases, an instance-based approach is advantageous. As
we see from the laboratory results, accuracy in the familiar conditions is high in both approaches.
However, it is low in the class-based unfamiliar condition, but remains high in the instance-based
unfamiliar condition. As there is no guarantee that an object observed will be familiar even to the
best experts, one can conclude that an instance-based approach can be effective in both cases,
whereas a class-based approach is only appropriate for cases where people know what they are
observing and the existing schema fully describes all the phenomena in the domain.
We also note limitations of the instance-based approach. The high accuracy of
classification in the familiar condition of the laboratory experiment for both class-based and
instance-based IS suggests that instance-based approach holds no advantages when participants
are familiar with the objects they are describing (and are able to use an existing project schema
to communicate everything they wanted about these objects). A major limitation of the instance-
based approach is low precision, resulting in the challenge of making data useful to experts.
Nonetheless, in the study with experts and machines, we demonstrate that, in many cases, such
data can be refined to a useful level of precision by post-processing.
Finally, the applicability check shows that potential data consumers are able to
effectively assess the advantages and disadvantages of instance-based versus class-based data
collection, consistent with the scenarios suggested in this paper (e.g., Table 1). This underscores
the practical utility of our work for organizations interested in crowdsourcing.
Implications and Conclusions
This paper contributes to the theory and practice of UGC, crowdsourcing, information
quality, and design of data collection instruments. To the best of our knowledge, ours is the first
attempt to answer the question of how to design IS to capture unanticipated data about
phenomena from crowds in a way that maintains IQ (e.g., accuracy, completeness, precision).
As UGC is being adopted in commercial, public, scientific and medical domains
(Andriole 2010; Culnan et al. 2010; Erickson et al. 2012; Hemsley and Mason 2012), persistent
concerns about the quality of data generated by the crowd remain. We show that one way to
address the research question posed in this paper is by adopting a new perspective on IQ. A
theoretical and practical contribution of this paper is the conceptualization of contributor-focused
IQ management, which reconsiders traditional approaches to IQ (and IS design as a byproduct).
This conceptualization embraces heterogeneity and low domain expertise in the crowds and
views these characteristics as potential strengths that can be harnessed using innovative IS
designs. Supported by empirical evidence of its advantages (and limitations), contributor-focused
IQ advances the theory of IQ, a topic of core importance to IS (Larsen and Bong 2016, Appendix
B; Petter et al. 2013) that until now has been dominated by a single perspective – fitness for use
(Shankaranarayanan and Blake 2017; Wang and Strong 1996). Yet, this characterization of IQ is
limited when information uses are evolving or unanticipated, and when discovery is desired.
Since more information production now occurs in environments with weak controls (e.g., in
social media, online, in crowdsourcing settings) and data repurposing is rampant (e.g., due to the
rise of data analytics), the contributor-centric conceptualization of IQ is a timely addition to IS
Our work further contributes to theory and practice by proposing boundaries for the
traditional and new IQ management and data collection. Specifically, the latter is most effective
in projects that are open, with many unknowns, whereas, whereas the former is most suitable for
closed projects with well-established and stable uses of data (see Table 1). We empirically show
that each approach comes with trade-offs, which organizations can consider when choosing to
implement a crowdsourcing IQ strategy and design a system to collect crowd input. The
limitations of both instance and class-based approaches also serve as a motivation for future
research to investigate ways of mitigating them, while leveraging the advantages of a given
approach. We encourage researchers to explore new ways to implement contributor-centric IQ in
IS development. While we examined several core dimensions of IQ, future research should also
consider the implications of this new perspective on other IQ dimensions.
Our work shows that the traditional IQ approach manifested via class-based IS, while
promoting information utility (e.g., desired level of input precision), may be problematic in open
UGC, including scenarios beyond citizen science (Appendix C provides several examples). First,
many contributors are non-experts and thus may be unable to report on unfamiliar things in the
domain, and when forced to do so, may resort to guessing, resulting in lower accuracy. Second,
we showed that focusing on the views of data consumers may come at a cost of capturing less
data and making fewer discoveries of unanticipated phenomena. These findings were consistent
across field and laboratory settings. Many UGC projects wish to be more inclusive and promote
wider participation. Yet, technology can be a barrier to diversification of participation (Newman
et al. 2012). We show that it is not only possible to maintain high accuracy, but accommodate
broader audiences, thereby expanding the potential of UGC.
We also explore whether organizations can take advantage of the higher accuracy and
completeness of instance-based data. We addressed this issue in a study in which domain experts
in biology were asked to infer classes based on attributes of observed organisms generated by
citizen scientists. In addition, because domain expertise is a scarce resource and does not scale in
large datasets, we also investigated the potential for classification using machine learning. The
results demonstrate that experts are able to leverage the attributes provided by non-experts to
infer classes that are more specific than those familiar to the non-expert participants. The results
point to the practical usefulness of asking non-experts to provide data at the level they are
comfortable with, and subsequently inferring classes of interest to information consumers.
Further, the potential to automatically infer classes can be used in a machine-to-contributor
dialog, whereby an artificial agent may ask in real-time additional verification questions to
increase the confidence in the ML-generated judgements and flag any unusual observations for
further analysis. Future research should also examine challenges that data consumers (e.g.,
scientists) face when interpreting and analyzing instance-based data, and how they can better
take advantage of this form of data.
According to a recent MISQ editorial, a major IS challenge is “addressing the rigidity of
data categorization schemas” (Rai 2016, p. vi) to allow for unanticipated phenomena to be
captured, while preserving stability of the overall system. In addition to uses in crowdsourcing,
organizations can leverage the insights from our work to supplement their traditional processes
for data collection within the organization. This is of growing importance as organizations are
becoming more agile in their processes, and encourage employees to be more proactive (Gebauer
and Schober 2006; Tax and Brown 1998).
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We wish to thank Daria Lukyanenko for her assistance in conducting the field and laboratory
experiments. We also wish to thank the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of
Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, GEOIDE Network of
Centres of Excellence Canada, L’institut de valorisation des données (IVADO) and Memorial
University's Harris Centre for providing funding in support of this project. Finally, we wish to
thank the anonymous contributors of sightings to the NL Nature project.
Author Biographies
Roman Lukyanenko is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Information Technologies at
HEC Montreal, Canada. Roman obtained his PhD from Memorial University of Newfoundland.
Roman’s research interests include conceptual modeling, ontological foundations of information
systems, information quality, citizen science, crowdsourcing, machine learning, design science
research, and research methodology (research validities, instantiation validity, and artifact
sampling). In addition to MIS Quarterly, Roman’s work has been published in Nature, Information
Systems Research, Journal of the Association for Information Systems, European Journal of
Information Systems, among others. Roman served as a Vice-President of the AIS Special Interest
Group on Systems Analysis and Design.
Jeffrey Parsons is University Research Professor and Professor of Information Systems in the
Faculty of Business Administration at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His research
interests include conceptual modeling, crowdsourcing, information quality, and recommender
systems. His work has appeared in many outlets, including MIS Quarterly, Management Science,
Information Systems Research, ACM Transactions on Database Systems, IEEE Transactions on
Knowledge and Data Engineering, and Nature. Jeff is a Senior Editor for MIS Quarterly, a former
Senior Editor for the Journal of the Association for Information System, and has served as Program
Co-chair for a number of major information systems conferences.
Yolanda F. Wiersma is a Professor of Biology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her
research area is landscape ecology with applications focused on forestry, wildlife management,
and protected areas. She also conducts interdisciplinary research on citizen science. Her research
has been published in many venues, including Landscape Ecology, Ecology Letters, Biological
Conservation, Biodiversity and Conservation, Conservation Biology, and Nature. She is an
Associate Editor for Diversity and Distributions and for the Journal of Applied Ecology as well as
a Coordinating Editor for the journal Landscape Ecology.
Mahed Maddah is a PhD candidate in the Information Systems and Business Analytics
Department at Florida International University. In addition to MIS Quarterly, Mahed’s work has
been published in the Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems as well as leading information
systems and business conferences. Mahed’s research interests include data quality, user-generated
content, social media analytics, human-computer interaction, design science research and
cognitive psychology.
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