This paper explores peer-production initiated and organised by a public institution. We propose a sort of borderline test case that may shed light on issues surrounding peer-production in a capitalist context. We explore tensions around work and production in the digitisation project of the Marie-Victorin Herbarium in which a team of volunteers is working to photograph thousands of herbarium specimens, complete a database entry for each specimen and associate the digital photos with the database. Carried out in the context of a digital infrastructure, Canadensys, whose aim is to make information contained in Canadian biological collections freely accessible online, the project is realised almost exclusively with volunteer labour. This case illustrates how unpaid labour, freely given but organised from above in an institutional context, can produce a knowledge commons that may be difficult for capitalist forces to appropriate.
public institution, volunteer labour, digitisation, botany, knowledge commons
by Lorna Heaton, Patricia Dias da Silva
Université de Montreal
This paper reports on peer-production initiated and organised by a public institution. We explore tensions around work and production in the digitisation project of the Marie-Victorin Herbarium in which a team of volunteers is working to photograph thousands of herbarium specimens, complete a database entry for each specimen and associate the digital photos with the database. Carried out in the context of a digital infrastructure, Canadensys, whose aim is to make information contained in Canadian biological collections freely accessible online, the project is realised almost exclusively with volunteer labour.
We suggest that this case may shed light on issues surrounding peer production in a capitalist context. The Marie-Victorin Herbarium is a public institution that benefits from the freely given work of volunteers in pursuit of a noble goal: the production of an open-access knowledge commons. It is not a capitalist firm and does not seek financial profit. Yet, this peer production is strongly framed and organised by an institution. Although the situation reproduces some facets of traditional labour organisation, such as a modular production process and “time sheets” filled out by the coordinator, production output (i.e., the number of entries produced) is not the primary consideration. As might be expected in a museum situation, data quality is of much greater concern. Similarly, while they recognise what they are doing as “work,” the volunteers themselves reject any idea of exploitation and regularly point to the benefits they receive from participation, as well as to producing something for the common good or for generations to come. Relationships between volunteers and the two paid employees—a curator and a collections manager—are not antagonistic; in fact, staff members try to maximise volunteer choice (of hours, tasks, etc.), are attentive to opportunities for learning, and integrate volunteers’ suggestions for process improvement. They do, however, mobilise a pool of volunteer labour in order to carry out this colossal project. They orient and supervise the project, and are ultimately responsible for the efficiency and speed of the process (i.e., making specimens accessible online more rapidly) and for the quality of the resulting product. Based on six months of observation, a series of interviews with participants and two further months of voluntary participation in the digitisation project, we ask in what ways the public character of the institution and the goods produced, as well as the collaborative process may influence our interpretations of the relationship between paid work and peer production.
The paper is organised as follows: First, we review significant literature in order to situate our case. We then describe the work of digitisation in detail, with particular attention to who is involved in various stages of the process. A discussion of key themes follows.
Although scientists and amateurs have worked together for centuries, new sociotechnical configurations are changing scientific practice, relations between those involved, and even the very definition of what qualifies as scientific knowledge, as an increased variety of actors are connected and intervene at different stages of knowledge production and dissemination (Baker and Millerand, 2010; Hine, 2008; Waterton et al., 2013). On the one hand, the digitisation and availability of research data on the Internet enables its circulation among increasingly heterogeneous groups of actors—to different research projects, across disciplines, with the public, and so on. On the other, the multiplication of web platforms facilitates the participation of amateurs and the general public in scientific research (Lievrouw, 2010).
Projects that invite members of the public to participate in producing scientific knowledge are often classed under the rubric of citizen science. This label masks considerable diversity. In fact, citizen science “encompasses very different degrees of agency with regards to the research process, very different relationships with the professional scientists and very different degrees of influence on policy relevant scientific projects where citizens contribute to as ‘citizen scientists’” (Nascimento et al., 2014: 5). To avoid misinterpretation, Heaton et al. (2016) prefer the term “participatory science” to describe the engagement of non-professionals in scientific investigation, whether by contributing resources, asking questions, collecting data or interpreting results.
Despite said diversity, the designation “citizen science project” refers in most cases to projects that rely on large numbers of contributors to provide small contributions that are more or less independent, allowing them to be treated separately and then integrated into a coherent whole (Kelling et al., 2011). These types of projects are, thus, the scientific equivalent of crowdsourcing, in which “citizens” work actively to gather and contribute data (usually observations) or to code or classify existing data (often specimens) (Lievrouw, 2010; Nielsen, 2012). Participatory science initiatives open new possibilities for engaging the public with science. However, long before the advent of Web 2.0, in his seminal 1996 article, Bucchi argued against “reducing the public to an external, monolithic, and taken-for-granted source of support,” (which we argue a crowdsourcing approach to science tends to do).
Several models propose classifying citizen science projects according to the type of tasks performed by non-scientists and the benefits they may derive, usually along a continuum (Buytaert et al., 2014). For instance, Bonney et al. (2009) analyse a series of projects according to the involvement and control these participants have, namely whether they are “Contributory” (designed by scientists), “Collaborative” (non-scientists not only contribute, but can also play a role in steps like design, analysis and dissemination) or “Co-created” (designed together and with a strong and continuous involvement of the public). Nascimento et al. (2014) note that citizen scientists have been described in the scientific literature as researchers, data collectors, observers, data processors, sensors, a conservation army, communicators and disseminators, as well as amateurs and enthusiasts.
Still, drawing lines between participants in citizen science projects is not always clear-cut. For Haklay (2013), all active participants are scientists, with the difference that “professional scientists” receive a salary for contributing to science, whereas he considers the other participants “unpaid scientists”. Furthermore, these categories are fluid since professionals often assume the role of volunteer naturalists outside their working hours (Ellis and Waterton, 2004) and volunteers may become members of paid staff (Bell et al., 2008) or vice-versa.
Haywood (2014) suggests examining the added value of citizens’ contribution to science from two different perspectives: (1) the public understanding of science and technology tradition that is oriented towards scientific research in which the external value of projects is more salient; and (2) the public engagement in science tradition that emphasises an opening up of research and policy, and can be perceived as more focused on the internal value of such projects, namely for the participants. He identifies four main goals for public participation in scientific research projects: expanding the scope and scale of scientific research, enhancing science knowledge and understanding via interactive learning experiences for “non-scientists”, increasing environmental stewardship and developing more democratic and inclusive science research and policy processes (Haywood, 2014: 65).
For scientists and funding agencies, cost-effectiveness is often cited as a benefit of citizen science given limited financial and human resources in biodiversity conservation initiatives (Darwall and Dulvy, 1996; Miyazaki et al., 2014). Nonetheless, these projects generally continue to require at least some financial support (Thiel et al., 2014) and others’ costs—such as time and effort in managing people and technological support—need to be considered (Gura, 2013). Analyses of the return on investment of these projects suggest that coordination, communication with volunteers, and data checking and compilation imply costs that can be very high in the long run (Tulloch et al., 2013). Still, citizen science is often synonymous with large projects crowdsourcing information at a very low cost, and therefore, for some, an exploitative form of big science (Kinchy et al., 2014).
The ability to learn, to make discoveries and to teach have all been identified as motivations for participating in citizen science (Raddick et al., 2010). Indeed, knowledge exchange or mutual learning seem to play a key role, “specifically, through systems of informal mentoring, where the most experienced teach the less experienced” (Bell et al., 2008: 3450). Other motivations include the desire to contribute to science, a sense of being part of a community, having fun and enjoying beauty, as well as interest in the project, in the field and in science in general (Raddick et al., 2010). The motivations of volunteers may change over time and form a complex framework of both internal and external factors (Rotman et al., 2012). Studies of volunteering not restricted to citizen science have already demonstrated multiple goals and how more than one goal may be pursued at the same time (Clary and Snyder, 1999). Clary and Snyder (1999: 157) identify six personal and social functions of volunteering: values (to express or act on them), understanding (to learn), enhancement (for growth and development), career (to gain experience), social (to strengthen relationships) and protective to reduce negative feelings or to solve personal problems. Researchers’ awareness of volunteers’ motivations helps contribute to ongoing participation (Couvet and Teyssèdre, 2013), while lack of such understanding and issues of mutual apprehension and mistrust constitute demotivating factors (Rotman et al., 2012). Less hierarchical projects benefit particularly from long-term participation and are associated with the development of personal relationships between scientists and volunteers, promoting trust and communicating goals, acknowledgement and attribution, as well as mentorship (Rotman et al., 2014).
Adler (2007) has argued that capitalist relations of production are in contradiction with the socialisation of the forces of production. As technology and organisation become more complex and production ceases to be uniquely an individual matter, the socialisation of labour produces a socialised or “collective worker” (Adler, 2007: 1321). Adler and Heckscher’s (2006) notion of “collaborative communities” also points to the idea that social relations themselves might be “productive.” The post-workerist strand of Marxist organisation studies emphasises that “the work of socialisation—all that labour does without wage recompense to make this regime [of wage labour] possible both in the workplace and the community—are present from an incipient moment in commodity labour” (Harney, 2007: 148). This socialisation of labour forms the basis of social wealth, but also serves as a source of profit for capital. For post-workerists, the wage relation is only a part of capital’s command over labour, and productive activity is moved outside the contractual employment relationship (Böhm and Land, 2012). Analyses of this type point towards a new “hidden abode” of production, where work occupies an expanded terrain of social activity; where management moves further away from direct control of work to more complex practices of governance (Arvidsson, 2005); and where collaboration in production is increasingly the responsibility of the workers (Beverungen et al., 2015: 477).
The need to account for the social aspects of production, such as peer production, and for unpaid work, is all the more pressing in digital contexts. The idea of freely provided labour justified by the desire to contribute according to a gift logic is only part of the story and can be seen in the context of working relations that are also characterised by capitalist logics and strategies that co-opt peer production. Terranova‘s concept of free labour as “simultaneously voluntarily given and unwaged, enjoyed and exploited” expresses the reality of an Internet that “is animated by cultural and technical labour through and through, a continuous production of value which is completely immanent in the flows of the network society at large” (2004: 74). A critical view on relations of crowdsourcing and peer-production relativises the exalting discourses of fans, passionate amateurs and citizen scientists, as argued above. One source of such criticism stems from research on digital labour.
In the digital labour literature, the discussion revolves around two main topics: the precarious working conditions of online workers, be they micro-workers or skilled creative industry professionals, and the monetisation of user behaviour on the social web (Scholz, 2013). In both contexts, the relation of power in place is described as exploitative. According to Aytes (2013), Mechanical Turk contributors (also known as Turkers) benefit little from the value they generate, their tasks are menial, they often have no knowledge of what exactly they are contributing to given the extreme modular distribution of tasks and there is no recognition of their contribution.1 Similarly, crowdsourcing projects tend to separate worker and requester as their relationship is solely task-based and limited in time.
In the case of social networking sites, with the exception of Google, companies do not share their revenues with their users. This appropriation of value has, in fact, led to a class-action suit brought against Facebook regarding its Sponsored Stories Advertising programme, in which regular posts were rendered into ads featuring the user’s name and photo, without asking for permission, nor due payment (Fisher, 2015). Companies like Google prefer to downplay their influence, presenting themselves as mere “hosts” (Gillespie, 2010), yet these services exert different forms of control: over users through data-mining and profiling; over their practices by determining preferable choices; and over their content through automatic filtering (Dias da Silva, 2014). As forms of immaterial and affective labour, the activities of social web users are often not considered work at all. However, bearing in mind the double role of user as content producer and data provider (Dijck, 2009), the concept of exploitation applies more aptly to user-generated data (Andrejevic, 2009). Users have very little control and reduced knowledge of the process, as well as less to gain from the accumulation of data resulting from their actions online, whereas the creation of content is often associated with deriving pleasure and exploring one’s creativity (Dijck, 2013). Online contribution can thus simultaneously promote alienation and emancipation (Proulx et al., 2011).
Aigrain (2005) warns against the power of corporations to shape the law, as well as to control the sharing of information and knowledge. However, he also evokes another world, one of cooperation and solidarity, in which the commons are enablers of human development. The term “Commons” has become widely used in different contexts, but always tied to information sharing and the reconfiguration of current property systems. Von Hippel’s book on the democratisation of innovation is dedicated “to all who are building the information commons”—the result of innovators in a particular field making their developments freely available to all, and hence providing an alternative to information as private intellectual property (2005: 12-13). In their study of the knowledge commons, Hess and Ostrom (2007) discuss knowledge as a shared resource that is subject to social dilemmas. Knowledge commons can reside at the local level, the global level or somewhere in between. Wherever it is situated, it is characterised by multiple uses and competing interests.
Benkler (2002, 2006) suggests that commons-based peer production is a response to a set of changes that “have increased the role of non-market and non-proprietary production, both by individuals alone and by cooperative efforts in a wide range of loosely or tightly woven collaborations” (2006: 2). For Söderberg and O’Neil, “the commons and peer production are two names for describing the same thing: a particular kind of labour relation” (2014: 2), in which work is voluntary, tasks are self-selected and motivations are mostly intrinsic (e.g., peer recognition), rather than extrinsic (i.e., monetary compensation). Building on Raymond (1999), Demil and Lecoq (2006) define a bazaar style of governance with few control mechanisms that relies on open licenses and voluntary participation. O’Neil (2015) refers to ethical-modular organisations (EMOs), which operate in a logic where motivations for participation are ethical, and oriented towards others, rather than towards financial profit. Peer-production can be carried out within a commercial infrastructure, which implies that it is partially subject to the constraints of commercially-driven cognitive work, as in the instances of digital labour discussed above. In peer production, appropriation often looms not early in the process, namely in the definition of the project, but towards the end as the community’s output is appropriated by external commercial interests, thus becoming free labour (Söderberg and O’Neil, 2014: 2). Bauwens argues that if nonreciprocal value is indeed captured, this is problematic given conditions of worker precarity. However, “[u]nder conditions of social solidarity, the freely given participation to common value projects is a highly emancipatory activity” (Bauwens, 2013: 209).
Context and method
Herbaria are collections of preserved plant specimens, usually dried and placed on sheets of paper and classified according to family, genus and species. They serve many different purposes, from scientific research on plant taxonomy, phylogeny or evolution, to applied research in fields as diverse as climate change, agriculture, human health, biosecurity, forensics, land management, conservation biology, natural resources and control of invasive species. By providing a reliable, verifiable record of the changes to our flora over hundreds of years, they are an important source of information on our natural heritage and play a vital educational role.
The Marie-Victorin Herbarium in Montreal is a major collection, both in terms of size and reputation. Established in 1920, it contains close to 700,000 specimens of vascular plants primarily from the north-east of North America, particularly Quebec and Newfoundland, with a number of important specialisations, making it an important botanical reference. The Herbarium has two paid staff members: a curator and, since 2012, a collections manager. Since 2012, it has been housed in the Biodiversity Centre of the University of Montreal within Montreal’s Botanical Garden. The construction of the Biodiversity Centre was part of a larger project that aims to provide Canada with a pole of excellence and a network of researchers in biodiversity, Canadensys. Canadensys’ goal is to offer free, universal access to the information contained in biological collections via digital infrastructures. The project to digitise the Herbarium’s collection takes place in this context.
Digitising a herbarium’s specimens represents a solution to many of the challenges involved in curating a herbarium (Flannery, 2012; Heaton and Proulx, 2012). Dried plant specimens are fragile and subject to attack by insects, deterioration due to light or fluctuations of temperature or humidity. Curators are often obliged to restrict consultation and borrowing of specimens. In this context, digitisation is both an excellent opportunity to make a systematic inventory of a plant collection, and to greatly increase its accessibility. Numerous digitisation initiatives are underway and they adopt different models, ranging from mass, semi-automated digitisation, such as that underway at the Smithsonian’s Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (Rogers, 2016), to contracting out digitisation work to produce the Global Plants Initiative, a database privately owned by JSTOR (Heaton and Proulx, 2012), to using gamification strategies to crowdsource digitisation in the Herbonautes, organised by the Musée national d’histoire naturelle in France (Pignal and Pérez, 2013; Zacklad and Chupin, 2015).
In early 2014, the Marie-Victorin Herbarium introduced a new process based on the photography of specimens, with the goal of increasing the speed of online publication. Since this work is very intensive in terms of resources, the Herbarium recruited and trained volunteers that are responsible for most of the phases of the process and who supply an important source of labour—the equivalent in time spent to that of three or four full-time employees. In calling on volunteers, the Herbarium was acting in accordance with the long and strong tradition of volunteering at the Montreal Botanical Garden. For 40 years, through the Amis du Jardin Botanique, individuals have volunteered in various capacities, including at the Herbarium. What was new for the Herbarium was the number of volunteers recruited for this project. After a flurry of initial enthusiasm, the number of regular volunteers involved in digitising specimens stabilised at around 30 people. The majority of volunteers are retired, but there are also students, and workers with rotating schedules or without a permanent position. Their backgrounds are equally diverse: a few have degrees in biology and related areas, but did not necessarily work in their field of study. Most volunteers have some type of professional or technical training, ranging from medicine to teaching, accounting, or health management. Around three quarters are female, and the level of economic wealth varies greatly. What unites the volunteers is their appreciation of nature in general, and their love for plants in particular. Most volunteer once a week for either a full day or a half day, but a few are more regular. The work of digitisation is done on site at the Herbarium.
The digitisation project was never imagined as paid employment. In recent decades, natural history collections the world over have been subject to increasing budgetary restrictions (Dalton, 2003; Yong, 2016), leading Funk (2014) to denounce the “erosion of collections-based science”. University botany programmes are closing (more than half of U.S. programs have closed since 1988), whereas in Canada, as elsewhere, smaller herbaria are closing and donating their collections to larger ones (15% of North American herbaria have closed since 1997) (Deng, 2015). The lack of a budget for digitisation should be seen more in this larger, international context of disinvestment in natural science collections, than in relation to recent Canadian or Quebec austerity measures or economic policies.
Our paper is based on regular observations during the first six months of the project in 2014, followed by two months of participant observation and interviews with eight volunteers, the collections manager and the botanist of reference/curator. Each observation period was documented with notes and photographs. The notes contained both objectivist descriptions of activities and spaces and impressions/intuitions (Maanen, 1988; Marcus, 1995) that subsequently served as a departure point for thematic analysis. Observation notes and interview transcripts were analysed collaboratively in meetings of the research team.
Description of the digitisation process
The digitisation process implies multiple manipulations, divided into four main stages. Firstly, specimens must be mounted (or the existing mounting reinforced) on standard sheets of paper and the information contained on their labels—the name of the plant and the person who identified it, the date and location of the collection, habitat and the name of the collector—verified. This step is fundamental for the conservation of the specimens and is not specific to digitisation, although some changes were introduced to simplify the photography process. Volunteers take complete charge of the mounting process: An experienced volunteer trains new recruits and has prepared a reference manual to help with the process. Verification is a crucial aspect of the process, since plant identifications change regularly. Volunteers do much of the work to verify the exactitude of existing labels. They use an array of tools, other databases and online resources, as well as books. Any changes in nomenclature will be approved by the curator before new labels are printed and attached. The final result is an up-to-date record, an inventory of the Herbarium’s holdings, such as that illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Herbarium sheet
Before being photographed, the specimen has to have an entry in the database. Most will be classified as “partial entries”, meaning that they have basic information (the content of the specimen’s label) and an identification number (a unique identifier). Volunteers create entries for each specimen and transcribe information contained on the labels. Entries can be completed at a later date with additional information, such as geo-referenced data, the history of the plant’s name, etc.
The photography stage involves a constant to-and-fro between the image and the database. The specimen is digitised as a photo, the photo is linked to its database entry, and metadata on the photography process is added into the database. This repetitive work, performed by individual volunteers or teams of two, requires a number of small steps and demands great attention to detail. Another volunteer later verifies that the photos are recorded, that they are appropriately named and that the association with the database is functional—a sort of quality control that was added as an additional step after a few discrepancies were found in the first digitised records.
After photography, the entry has to be completed. This is sometimes done before the entry is uploaded and made accessible, and sometimes after. The form is divided into different colour-coded sections so that it is easier to understand the different types of information required: history of determinations, location, projects that have used the specimen, etc. Completing an entry may be relatively easy or difficult, depending on the information on the specimen sheet. In every case, this work is done by a small number of skilled, or specialised, volunteers. For example, certain volunteers specialise in determining the precise geographical location (coordinates) of specimens. Georeferencing a specimen’s location and habitat requires particularly intensive use of a variety of sources: satellite images, Google maps, old military maps, coordinate format conversion tools, and so on. Again, this multiplicity of sources requires constant checking and crosschecking in order to ensure accuracy and data quality.
The final step of the process—uploading entries to Canadensys—is not carried out by volunteers, but by the IT team of the Biodiversity Center. Of its close to 700,000 specimens, as of December 2015, the Marie-Victorin herbarium has 150,000 online entries, 50,000 of them georeferenced, and 7,000 images. All the information regarding the specimen, including a high-resolution photograph, is available online and can be downloaded freely. A series of filters facilitate searching the available collections. Information and images have no restrictions regarding use; their licensing as Creative Commons 0 means that not even attribution is required. They become part of the knowledge commons—to be used by other scientists, hobbyists, government officials, artists, NGOs, whoever, wherever, whenever.
Table 1. The division of labour in the digitisation process
of collections for digitization
curator and collections manager
design, approval of changes
– Mounting (or consolidation)
of specimen labels
control by a senior volunteer
training (on occasion)
entry and verification
Work by skilled
questions, resolving problematic cases
tools (such as a controlled vocabulary)
For Edwards, “managers and workers are locked into a relationship that is contradictory and antagonistic” (2009: 16). From a labour process perspective, everything at the Herbarium seems to be in place to support the idea of structured antagonism (Edwards, 1986) as integral to the relations between employer and employee. Managerial strategies harness volunteers’ labour to produce digital records and the volunteers do not determine how their work is deployed to meet the objective: Volunteer “workers” carry out tasks to support decisions that have been made elsewhere.
A closer look reveals a more complex picture, however. The concept of structural antagonism rests on a supposition of binary identity formation (employer and worker). While the collections manager and the curator are clearly in a separate category, the volunteers are not a homogenous group. There is, in fact, a gradation of skills and a certain degree of specialisation by certain volunteers. For instance, the volunteer in charge of mounting specimens is the undisputed expert in her field and judged more capable than the collections manager. She has general knowledge of the rest of the process but no interest in doing anything else. Some volunteers specialise in one aspect of the digitisation process, while others rotate among several, or take part in the digitisation process alongside other duties (such as preparing and shipping specimens on loan to other herbariums or researchers). A number of more skilled volunteers sometimes assume an informal leadership role. They answer questions when the manager is not available, train new volunteers, verify the exactness of database information that has been entered. To further complicate the picture, some volunteers have at times been paid contractual workers, sometimes doing exactly what they now do as volunteers, while others hope that their volunteering will lead to paid employment, either in the Herbarium or elsewhere. This fluidity points to contingent and multiple identity formations (Grint and Woolgar, 1997) that are neither antagonistic, nor binary.
If the relationship is not antagonistic, is it contradictory? Edwards describes the labour contract as contradictory “… because managements have to pursue the objectives of control and releasing creativity, both of which are inherent in the relationship with workers and which call for different approaches” (2009: 16). The collections manager expresses this duality: “I have to grease the wheels so that things run smoothly. And so that people are happy. So that what we produce is useful to everyone in the end.”2 Managing volunteers has become a significant part of his work. At the start of the digitisation process, the Herbarium recruited a large number of volunteers. Consequently, in those early months, the manager spent almost all of his time training the new volunteers and making adjustments in terms of the task distribution. This completely upset the organisation of his own work.
I had to learn how to manage a mass of potential volunteers […] Including the ten who were already working here, there were around 60! And a lot of them were people who really wanted to help, but who didn’t really know how they could contribute. They checked off all the possibilities: difficult tasks, repetitive and boring ones, the most interesting ones […] They checked everything. And that left me having to decide what they should do, but I didn’t know them.
Controlling the digitisation process requires that the collections manager track the progression of the work and that he assign tasks to volunteers. This assignment is done collaboratively with the volunteers, but is also guided by his appreciation of their ability to perform certain tasks, now that he better knows their strengths and weaknesses. Volunteers do not fill out timesheets, but the manager records their hours in a logbook. He was able to inform us that, during the observation period, volunteers supplied the equivalent number of hours of three or four full-time employees. He still finds the work of managing the volunteers taxing, both in terms of the time it takes away from his other, more collection-related tasks and in terms of the energy it requires, “I’m just one person. If there were two of us, we could do a better job of managing and interacting with the volunteers. I’m completely overworked.”
The manager’s workload is large not only due to the sudden increase in the number of volunteers, but also because he tries to maximise volunteer choice (of hours, tasks, etc.), and is attentive to opportunities for learning. He often invites volunteers to participate in activities he thinks they will enjoy and that also speak to a wider commitment to the Herbarium, Montreal’s Botanical Garden and love of plants in general (e.g., a session on the Garden’s history or an event at a museum). For example, he took one of the volunteers, the mounting expert, with him to visit another Herbarium. Although it was not the goal of the visit, what she saw led her to modify mounting procedures at the Marie-Victorin Herbarium. A doubt expressed by one volunteer can become an opportunity for a short lecture benefiting everyone present. Volunteers recognise and highlight the staff’s responsiveness: “If we have a question, right away they’re listening. We don’t get the feeling that we’re bothering them, ever. We know very well that we are interrupting, but it’s never the impression they give us” (NC).
The collections manager is comfortable when it comes to channelling the creativity of volunteers, and he seems to have a gift for making people feel appreciated: “The atmosphere is really good. And [the manager] is always available. The relationship with [the curator] is also good: he’s interested in what people are doing. Frankly, it’s a really pleasant working environment” (ED). As the digitisation process is still being refined, inventiveness is commended and encouraged: “Any initiative we might take is greeted with ‘Oh, yes, yeah, yeah, yeah’. So we feel encouraged to have ideas for how to improve quality and the work process” (NC).
The digitisation process in place in the Marie-Victorin Herbarium reproduces several facets of traditional labour organisation. The production process is controlled from the top, with volunteer “workers” executing decisions that have been made elsewhere. Herbarium staff members orient and supervise the project, and are ultimately responsible for the efficiency and speed of the process and for the quality of the result. Although volunteers are aware that the staff has to comply with the institution’s own rules, they do not feel unduly constrained by this since there is room for making suggestions to change procedures: “If we have an idea for how to improve the process or something, [the manager] is really open to our suggestions. On the other hand, I know that they also have operations that they need to respect. But I feel more relaxed here [than in a formal working environment]” (NQ).
The process is modular and largely sequential, as Table 1 illustrates, with volunteers most active in the middle stages. The description of the process as a series of discrete tasks belies the relationship between them, as well as that between the volunteers, however. While the various tasks can be carried out independently of one another, it is not rare for someone performing one task to consult with another volunteer with another responsibility. For example, a volunteer who is photographing specimens might visit the mounting room to describe a problem with a shadow caused by the placement of something on the sheet and ask if the mounters might organise the elements on the page differently. Or someone creating initial database entries might inform the photographers that a certain specimen sheet will need three photos because, exceptionally, there are three entries. The fact that there is a good deal of interaction between volunteers is an important characteristic of the project. They are peers in this sense of the word. Their geographical co-location and the small scale of the initiative hark back to Price’s (1963) description of “little science” as characterised by groups of scientific amateurs and enthusiasts engaged in small-scale, informal interactions.
What is more, volunteers have a sense of where their work fits within the entire process and, indeed, how the process feeds into the project of producing an online resource: “It’s one small piece, a small contribution to [something that] otherwise couldn’t be done. It’s making something that belongs to us accessible, something that’s part of our heritage but that’s unknown because it’s hidden in our drawers. […] Without the contribution of the volunteers, it would be impossible” (NC). This appreciation of and adherence to project goals is characteristic of much of the participation in peer production, such as the Open Source community.
Volunteers draw on a large number and variety of resources in order to decode and assemble information for a specimen’s database entry. Using specimen labels as their first source, volunteers sometimes appear to be “detectives” pursuing all leads that may reveal the story of the plant: its origins, its identification, the people and institutions connected to it. They may consult resources commonly used at the Herbarium (proposed and access structured by the collections manager and the curator, e.g. tabs, linking directly to certain databases of plant names or collector information), but they also bring their knowledge of unconventional resources—online collaborative encyclopaedias, different types of maps, a travel-oriented website, virtual foreign language keyboards—to bear on their task. These resources in turn become part of the collective repertory. Driven by curiosity, they continue to search further, even if they already found the information required to fill out the field. This in-depth search is tied to checking and cross-checking—the quality of data is taken very seriously by the volunteers and not only by the paid staff—but it is also linked to the pleasure of discovery and learning, which in turn contributes to their continuing commitment.
Because when I learned how to enter things in the database, I gained some new knowledge. And that’s also very positive. In fact, it’s win-win. The Herbarium gets something out of it, and so do I. For sure, if there was only one side that benefitted it would be less motivating. I would still come to the Herbarium but I wouldn’t get any—it’s not necessarily a tangible benefit—but I wouldn’t feel the same personal satisfaction. There would be less chance of me staying. (NQ)
The integration of volunteers’ suggestions for improvements to the digitisation process is a key reason why they feel part of the project. In fact, there were many adjustments and refinements over the first six months of the project. These ranged from the design of the on-screen interface to the database, to changes in the placement of elements (e.g., envelopes containing seeds) on the specimen sheet during mounting, to the bricolage of the photography setup. The equipment setup and design of the initial protocol was based on digitisation projects underway elsewhere. The collections manager provided initial training to several volunteers, who then started to photograph specimens. A small project (1,000 photos) was chosen as a test case. In use, problems or sticking points became apparent at several levels and volunteers developed tools and techniques to facilitate their work and refine the process. As the manager points out, “We’ve discovered all sorts of errors. In the beginning, it was all a bit vague trying to anticipate the kind of problems we might encounter. Now, we’ve seen everything. Or maybe not, we’ll see.” He recognises that, “We’re learning as we go along. I hadn’t at all imagined the problems we’ve run into.” Some of the problems could hardly be anticipated and only became apparent? in practice: “When we work in the morning and the sun is in our eyes, when we have to use our hands to block it, then we said to ourselves ‘We have to try and do something about this’” (NC). The solution, as shown in Figure 2, was the installation of a shower curtain, which required considerable bricolage since the modern building housing the herbarium had been designed with clean lines and floor-to-ceiling windows. After several months, once the process had begun to stabilise, volunteers decided to develop a procedure manual. The resulting workflow and material environment are truly a collaborative undertaking. Knowledge is acquired in multiple ways, through mentorship (by staff and other volunteers), practice, autonomous research, but also in conversation.
We have different approaches and different areas of expertise too. It’s as though we put our ideas together, and with the combination we become more efficient. I think it’s accurate to say that our manipulations and the procedure we follow improve thanks to our exchange of ideas. (NQ)
And I learn from other volunteers too, like how to use the software. We share our discoveries. Sometimes we laugh too and go into raptures over the things we discover. We can share, people are open. And, like I said earlier, [the manager] is a good teacher, who is receptive and patient. (IT)
The fact that the digitisation process takes place in a single location distinguishes it from much peer production that is geographically distributed. The physical co-location of the volunteers in three rooms at the Herbarium (the mounting room, the herbarium storage space and the computer/office space) means that there are ample opportunities for socialisation. What is more, co-presence allows for a high degree of spontaneity, as when a question about a specimen being digitised turns into an impromptu lesson about the preferred locations of that type of plant. The specimens are materially very present for the volunteers—they are in daily contact with the things that will become abstract records in a far-off database. They also come into regular contact with researchers and government personnel who come to the Herbarium to consult specimens. This likely helps them to imagine the utility of a global scientific infrastructure and facilitates their engagement.
Figure 2. Digital photography station with curtain to block the sun
The artisanal process in place at the Herbarium stands in stark contrast to other digitisation initiatives. For instance, in the Global Plants Initiative (GPI), over 300 herbaria from more than 70 countries were invited (and paid) to digitise label data and produce high resolution images of their type specimens with a view to making them available online through JSTOR. The GPI followed a strict protocol, not only for image capture, but also in terms of data and metadata formats. The role of the individual herbaria was to carry out this work using the scanners supplied to each site and to send the resulting files to a central location for quality control, thus producing highly standardised results. Heaton and Proulx (2012) have described the work of six employees in one herbarium in terms of invisible work, given the standardisation of execution and the anonymity of the workers involved.
Other projects have taken specimen digitisation to new heights. The Smithsonian Institution’s new digitisation system handles up to 3,500 specimens per day, requiring an operator to place a new specimen on a conveyor belt every four to six seconds, while another places a barcode sticker on each as it passes and a third replaces the sheets in their folders at the end of the process. The photography is completely automated and the work of transcribing information on the labels is contracted out to a company in Suriname (Rogers, 2016). Using funds awarded under a government scientific infrastructure grant, France’s Musée national d’histoire naturelle has contracted the digitisation process of their 10 million specimens to a private company that also uses an assembly line model, with three production lines and three shifts of workers per day.3 The images are then put online and “citizens” are invited to help identify label information using an online collaborative platform with gamification elements, Les Herbonautes (Pignal and Pérez, 2013; Zacklad and Chupin, 2015). These industrial strategies target mass digitisation, rather than selective digitisation of particular collections or particularly valuable specimens.
How do volunteers evaluate their experience in the digitisation project and the Herbarium? They recognise what they are doing as work, but reject any idea of exploitation, pointing to the benefits they receive from participation, as well as to producing something for the common good and for generations to come. Their participation is “ethical”, motivated by a desire for self-fulfilment and in particular by a desire to contribute or “give back”. Drawing on the free labour literature, one might argue that they have bought into their own exploitation or that their consent at the point of production has been so effectively organised that they do not recognise their objective condition as exploited. We prefer a pragmatic approach and to respect the voice of the actors, however, and suggest that monetary retribution is not the only possible form of “payment”. Pleasure and a sense of appreciation are important:
[The fact that our work is appreciated] is part of the pleasure of coming here. It’s more fun than getting a paycheck. It’s better than money for your health anyway. […] I know [that I’m appreciated] because the manager is always complimentary. And even [the curator] pays me a compliment from time to time. And anyway, I can see that it’s really appreciated. (SK)
It’s gratifying and that’s kind of rare. It’s a quality that you don’t find easily. So we take our place without disturbing anything, but we feel that we have our place, that it’s appreciated. They tell us often. And that’s pleasant. With that, we are well paid. (laughs) (NC)
Volunteers also highlight learning opportunities and how their participation in this project allows them to give back to the community:
When I learned how to enter things in the database, I gained new knowledge. And that’s also a very positive thing. In fact it’s win-win at the Herbarium. They benefit and so do I. For sure, if it were one-sided, it would be less motivating. (NC)
I arrived in Montreal as an adult and I like it here. I remember saying to myself: When I retire, I’ll give something to the City of Montreal. […] And by chance it’s the Botanical Garden that crossed my path. And I’m giving back. But in my mind, it’s giving back to something I love. (NQ)
I am hoping that the work that I do here, because it’s on the Newfoundland and Labrador specimens, that it will be able to be compiled into a neat little database that can be brought back to Newfoundland. There is a herbarium at Mun, but it’s small, and they use the one at RUMS, that’s run by the provincial government. […] So it would be nice to take the things that I have done here and contribute back to my own province of course. (EQ)
The openness to their suggestions and the leeway provided by the staff allows volunteers a certain degree of autonomy and the ability to shape their work, even if their activities are framed within the demands of an institution. In our view, they are working within a peer production logic that is quite distinct from that of typical crowdsourcing citizen science projects, however repetitive and menial the tasks they perform appear to be. Volunteers accept that they have a role to play, and they are content to take their place in the larger system. The volunteers interviewed generally appreciate not being ultimately responsible for the entire process, although they all feel a sense of responsibility for maintaining quality and doing a good job.
The end result
In the context of scarce resources, using a pool of volunteer labour allows the Herbarium to carry out projects, such as digitising specimens, that would otherwise be impossible. While Canadensys and the Biodiversity Centre were funded through a competitive infrastructure grant, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, this programme does not finance operating costs. Thus, it provided money for the design and development of the Canadensys database and a technician, but there was no funding for research, modernising the collections, filling the database or its maintenance. The resulting database, fed in part by the digitisation project, is produced as a resource that will benefit everyone, particularly the scientific community. There is no thought of capitalising on it, especially since it was built with public funds. Its contents, though potentially useful in a variety of contexts, are not directly translatable into monetary profits, such as user data produced by Facebook users might be.
One of the vocations of a herbarium is “museal.” It serves as a repository for fine quality, well-preserved specimens. In addition to specimens’ utility for scientific, taxonomic purposes and their use in applied domains, such as conservation biology, land use planning or agriculture (Flannery, 2012; Lane, 1996), they are also a testament to natural heritage and its evolution, and to the history of botany. In this context, the digitisation of naturalist collections is not only an opportunity for collections to stabilise and guarantee the permanence of their collections. It is also a move to increase their value (Pignal and Pérez, 2013). Long before anyone could imagine online digitised images of plant specimens, Lane (1996: 536) described this added use value:
Computerisation of label data makes such reports on distribution and ecology of species more readily available to potential users; they add value to the data. Interconnecting the databases brings robustness to the information that natural history collections can provide to policy-making bodies; appreciation of robust data will lead in turn to appreciation of the collections from which those data were taken. Interconnectivity requires that collections personnel abandon competition in favour of achieving a common goal: The discovery and description of the world’s biota.
There are two points to be made here. Firstly, the “museum” aspect of the Herbarium requires that the digitisation process focus on quality, rather than quantity of production. Not only must the information contained in the database be accurate and up to date, the corresponding digital images must also be impeccably rendered and the link between the two well established. This concern for quality permeates the entire process—from the workflow design and establishment of protocols, to careful training with constant checking and rechecking of one’s own work, to validation by more experienced volunteers or the collections manager. While there is a tension between the desire to make images available online rapidly and the need to ensure that the information their record contains is definitive, in every case quality wins. Volunteers are not pressured to produce or to act quickly. Although a few like to count how many records they treat in a day’s work, most recognise that their productivity cannot be expressed numerically: “Sometimes, you can hit on a good strategy or shortcut and I’ll be able to correct the coordinates of a lot of entries. Other days, it’s more complicated and I’ll do many fewer” (ED). This is a far cry from industrial workflow systems of the Smithsonian Institution or the digitisation contractors of France’s MNHN, where output is measured numerically. Without exception, volunteers feel responsible for doing quality work: “It is the quality instead of the quantity that I think is really important for this type of work, because if you go through too fast, you will miss things” (EQ). They understand how each person’s work may affect the other’s, as well as its larger impact on the project as a whole: “The people here all feel involved because there is a lot of interaction between them. And they know that what you do has an impact on your neighbour, on others. And everyone knows the final goal” (DM). In terms of accountability, the Herbarium, and its staff, is ultimately responsible, but the names of volunteers are associated with the records they produce, in the metadata or sometimes on new specimen labels. This ensures traceability of any errors, but is seen by the management as primarily a way of acknowledging volunteers’ contributions.
The second aspect is related to the type of value created. The specimens are already in the public domain. If volunteers’ work produces additional value, it lies in creating an additional format (digital from physical) and in associating data that is searchable, filterable and so on. There is no new intellectual property involved. What is more, the value created is potential, located in possible uses, rather than directly convertible or exchangeable. This parallels the open source movement whose participants typically focus on use value, rather than exchange value: “Free Software is produced to be used, not to be sold” (Dafermos and Söderberg, 2009: 54, cited in O’Neil, 2015: 1636).
The ultimate destination of the digital specimens and their records is Canadensys, a portal whose mission is to make biodiversity information freely and openly available to everyone. Through Canadensys, specimen data are integrated into GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility), a global database of biodiversity data. Both Canadensys and GBIF operate using a CC0 licence, meaning that data is in the public domain. Biodiversity Centre and Herbarium staff express a strong ideological commitment to open data. This is undoubtedly also related to prevailing scientific norms of sharing information. The choice to waive all rights worldwide is also a pragmatic one tied to the difficulty in determining which data might be subject to copyright and what constitutes commercial use (which they would prefer to restrict). When it finds its way into Canadensys, the volunteers’ work becomes part of the knowledge commons (Hess and Ostrom, 2007), a shared resource produced when people make their production freely available to all, thus providing an alternative to information as private intellectual property (Von Hippel, 2005).
Volunteers are very aware of contributing to something larger than themselves, and cite this as one of their motivations.
It’s a way to preserve our heritage. […] It’s like contributing to the diffusion of science. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. […] So, it’s a plus. And it’s the way of the future. (NC)
It [making the herbarium available online] encourages the exchange of information internationally. I think it will reduce the use of resources to a certain extent, precisely because now we don’t have to send actual specimens by mail. It’s ecological in a way. I think it will also protect the specimens because they won’t be handled as much. So they might be conserved for longer. It’s a gigantic task, but I think that if the Herbarium can keep using volunteers to do it, it will happen eventually. I don’t really see any disadvantages. (NQ)
In preserving and extending the public, museum character of the Herbarium, and in emphasising open access, Canadensys operates according to a logic very different from that of JSTOR Global Plants, the world’s largest database of digitised plant specimens. Funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the latter is a privately-owned resource that is made available to researchers through subscriptions (Heaton and Proulx, 2012). JSTOR, and to a lesser extent the digitisation projects of the Smithsonian and France’s MNHN, follow a “big science” paradigm (Price, 1963) dominated by professional scientists and wealthy institutions, in which scientific information is mass-produced, marketed and circulated on a global scale. In our view, the public funding of the infrastructure and the fact that the work is performed in the context of a herbarium affiliated with a public university reinforce the peer-production logic in place.
Söderberg and O’Neil (2014: 2) note that dangers of appropriation in peer production projects are often not apparent at the outset in the definition of a project. Participants offer their freely-given labour to a common project that produces value, often use value. It is only when external commercial interests appropriate a community’s output that it becomes free labour. The digitisation of specimens for inclusion in Canadensys is still in its early stages, but we have difficulty imagining how it might eventually be appropriated.
Volunteering for an association or an institution is often associated with doing what someone, the volunteer coordinator or committee, decides needs doing. To some extent, this is the case in the Marie-Victorin Herbarium. Following a traditional labour organisation, priorities are determined by the management, and volunteers do much of the work. There is a clear distinction between manager/staff and volunteers. Yet, in the case described here, volunteers are much more than mere executors. Within the organisational frame provided, the process is highly collaborative. In particular, the extent to which the digitisation process has been shaped by volunteer initiatives and suggestions, and the degree of engagement and creativity expressed by volunteers link it to peer production. While the work of volunteers digitising specimens for the Herbarium may not strictly qualify as peer production, it does share many of its aspects. Participation is motivated by perceived benefits for the collectivity and primarily intrinsic motivations—a feeling of gratification, learning, a sense of achievement—all elements that are identified in the literature on citizen science, open source production or volunteering in general. This case points to the extension of peer production beyond the domain of distributed software production to physically co-located situations that involve material resources. Future research is needed to reflect on how physical co-location may affect the peer production process. For the moment, on the basis of this single example, we suggest that co-location may make coordination easier and reinforce adhesion to community values, thereby facilitating collaboration.
We have not argued that the digitisation process in the Herbarium lies outside the capitalist system. Indeed, we have precisely tried to use this case to illustrate some of the tensions in the relationship between peer production/volunteer work and paid work in the 21st century context. In referring to traditional peer production, Bauwens (2006: 134) notes that, “while capital instrumentalises the distributed, collaborative digital infrastructure of peer-to-peer exchange for its own ends, it cannot be reduced to this exploitation. As a civil society initiative, it offers an alternative model of social organisation. This means of production (1) strengthens the autonomy of civil society; (2) its production mode does not stem from market imperatives, nor state or corporate hierarchy; (3) its nonhierarchical mode of governance distinguishes it from both State and corporation; (4) the pooling of intellectual property makes private appropriation impossible and creates a ‘third social world’” (our translation). With Bauwens, we do suggest that instrumentalisation or exploitation need not always be overpowering. In our case, it is not just a question of the public character of the institution. As we have seen, other public institutions have followed different paths and digitally-enclosed public domain items. At the Marie-Victorin Herbarium, it is the combination of the collaborative production process and the commitment to openness of the goods produced that make a difference.
In fact, the project goal—making digital specimens freely available online—sets it squarely in the public domain. Volunteers are extremely aware of the project’s finality and subscribe to it. This orientation to making a contribution to a global, long-term project (Canadensys, and through it to an openly accessible international digital infrastructure, GBIF) distinguishes this activity from many that one might associate with traditional, local volunteer initiatives. In this context, financial considerations are secondary, or even absent, not only for the volunteers, but for Canadensys as well. The scientific and educational mission of the Herbarium means that things are measured in other terms. Quality, accessibility, the production of a common good are the yardsticks. Is this a utopian perspective? Perhaps.
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 Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is a digital labour market in which employers (or “requesters,” in Amazon’s vocabulary) post job offers consisting of “HITs – Human Intelligence Tasks,” i.e., tasks that have yet to be automatised. Examples provided by Amazon include “Find the item number for the product in this image” and “Categorise the tone of this article”. See https://www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome?variant=worker.
 Quotes have been translated from the French.
 This video, co-produced by the French museum, shows the magnitude of this project and its factory-like organisation: http://www.universcience.tv/video-herbier-26-18-000-planches-numerisees-par-jour-5928.html.
Lorna Heaton, Département de communication, Université de Montréal
Patrícia Dias da Silva, Département de communication, Université de Montréal