Last year I gave up a paid part-time job to have more time for volunteer activities. This does not make economic sense, and it did make my life more difficult in certain ways, but it made personal sense. My case is far from unusual. There are millions, perhaps billions of people that engage in volunteerism and there is a large body of literature on it. There is also a large body of literature on motivations, especially interesting is mechanism design and particularly the study of monetary incentives. To me it seems paradoxical that citizen science designers are trying to motivate people into volunteerism by using money.
I had a lively debate with the post doc that wrote a blog post that said “payments for referrals proved to be effective” in the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge. It was highly successful; many people were engaged and in merely 9 hours all the balloons were found. Does this mean that offering prize money is a successful way of motivating people to engage? The myheartmap project suggests otherwise; at the time of writing it’s been running for four weeks and right now only 45 out of 200 golden AED’s have been found, while the geographical scope is just one city, not the entire U.S. as was the case with the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge. Why is it that both projects use prize money to motivate people to participate, yet the number of people participating has been very different? A tentative answer is that the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge attracted people because it captured their imaginations and it stimulated creative communication solutions –the challenge presented may have had greater attraction than the prize money. In the AED case the emphasis on team work is much lower and the challenge is not attracting as much people, even though it has been featured prominently on several well-visited sites. Perhaps one should be careful with concluding that payments are an effective way of motivating people and instead argue the importance of challenge design and community participation.
Now, even when I depart from the community embedded view of a citizen scientist, to a classical economists point of view of a rational, utility maximizing, single unit of analysis, it is still hard for me to become convinced about the usefulness of monetary incentives in citizen science projects. Would the rational person not seek an extra job, or work extra hours if (s)he wanted to earn money, rather than risk the uncertainty of pay-off by investing time in a citizen science project such as myheartmap.com? If the citizen science project is then organized in such a way that the pay-off is certain, rather than in a competition way, would a rational person not seek to work the least am ount of hours in order to maximize pay-off? Say I earn £20 for importing twenty data-sets and normally I use four hours for this, that would make my hourly wage only £5. If I do the work in two hours then my hourly wage will be £10. There is an economic incentive to cut corners and submit sloppy jobs, meaning the quality of the project suffers. However, if I were not getting paid, I might find myself putting in more and more hours because I have found intrinsic joy in the project or gained skills that I want to develop further. I will probably tell my friends in an enthusiastic way what I am working on, and – depending on the contagiousness of my enthusiasm – my friends might sign up and start volunteering for the project too, creating a snowball effect. It remains to be seen if that would be the same if I were getting paid for the work and treating it as a job; like most people, I tend to spend very little time talking about my work with friends. For the longevity of the field, practitioners must also proceed with caution when handing out monetary incentives; research done by Deci in 1970 showed that people will put less effort in the same task after they have been paid for it and the pay stops, than the people that have never received pay (Shirky, 2010).Despite the old adagium being: turn your passion into your job, my advice to citizen science designers would be: don’t turn people’s passion into jobs.