What is crowdsourcing? Towards an integrated crowdsourcing definition

Buscando una definición

As I say a few months ago when I started to write this blog, the term “crowdsourcing” is surrounded by confusion. This confusion appears because the crowdsourcing encompasses a very diverse set of practices and because it feeds from a number of different models such as open innovation and co-creation, each with its peculiarities and distinguishing features.

Given this situation, to know exactly what crowdsourcing is (and differentiate it from what is not crowdsourcing), we need to have a clear, comprehensive and global definition.

In a paper I have written entitled “Towards an Integrated Definition Crowdsourcing”, which will be published by the Journal of Information Science, I have studied the different definitions of crowdsourcing found in journals, conferences and other documents (up to 40 definitions!) with the objective of developing an integrated definition.

Of all the definitions found, three are the most commonly used: Jeff Howe‘s, Daren C. Brabham‘s and the Wikipedia‘s.

Jeff Howe was the first to coin the term, hence being called the father of crowdsourcing. Although throughout its various publications different definitions of crowdsourcing have been written by J. Howe, the best known is the one in which the crowdsourcing is defined as…

.. the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and general large) network of people in the form of an open call. This can take the form of peer-production (when the job is performed collaborative), but is also often undertaken by sole individual.

Daren C. Brabham, one of the most important crowdsourcing researchers, states two definitions. According to Brabham, crowdsourcing is …

… an online, distributed problem solving and production model already in use by for profit organizations such as Threadless, iStock…

or it also can be defined as

… a strategic model to attract an interested, motivated crowd of individuals capable of providing solutions superior in quality and quantity to those that even traditional forms of business can.

Finally, the definition given by Wikipedia can be found. According to this source, crowdsourcing is …

… the act of sourcing tasks traditionally performed by specific individuals to a group of people or community (crowd) through an open call.

As I said before, these are just the 3 most used of all the definitions found (up to 40 definitions). In almost all cases, each definition is focused on some aspect or feature of the application of crowdsourcing in a particular area.

W. Tatarkiewicz
To get a comprehensive definition which integrates the rest, I have followed the methodology proposed by Władysław Tatarkiewicz (Warsaw, 1886 – Warsaw, 1980), a philosopher and history of philosophy and art researcher, in his book “History of Six ideas”. This book suggests a methodology for the creation of a definition based on the seeking of what he calls differentia specifica: those elements which, individually or together, can differentiate one object from the rest.

As one of the reviewers of the papers wrote, the definition is wordy, but it’s thorough.Here it comes:

Crowdsourcing is a type of participative online activity in which an individual, an institution, a non-profit organization, or company proposes to a group of individuals of varying knowledge, heterogeneity, and number, via a flexible open call, the voluntary undertaking of a task. The undertaking of the task, of variable complexity and modularity, and in which the crowd should participate bringing their work, money, knowledge and/or experience, always entails mutual benefit. The user will receive the satisfaction of a given type of need, be it economic, social recognition, self-esteem, or the development of individual skills, while the crowdsourcer will obtain and utilize to their advantage that what the user has brought to the venture, whose form will depend on the type of activity undertaken.

If you want, you can download the paper.

In future posts, I will analyze each of the elements that make up this definition, each of the elements that represent a differentia specifica.

¿What do you think about the definition?




  • Estellés-Arolas, E. & González Ladrón-de-Guevara, F. (2012) Towards an integrated crowdsourcing definition. Journal of Information Science (in press) (JCR: 1,41)
  • Tatarkiewicz W., History of Six Ideas: An Essay in Aesthetics (Springer, 1980)
  • Howe J., The rise of crowdsourcing, Wired 14(6) (2006)
  • Brabham D. C., Moving the crowd at iStockphoto: The composition of the crowd and motivations for participation in a crowdsourcing application, First Monday 13(6) (2008)
  • Brabham D. C., Crowdsourcing as a Model for Problem Solving: An Introduction and Cases, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 14(1) (2008) 75-90.
  • Wikipedia, Crowdsourcing. Accesible: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crowdsourcing


  1. I like your defintion as it is, you named it, thourough. Thank you!
    Still, I think there is quiet a number of crowdsourcing platforms that give rewards (points, money,…) to the crowdworkers. SO this should be integrated into the definition instead of saying it is only voluntarily performed work!

    1. Hi Julie!!

      Of course!! You're right. As it's said in the definition, the crowdsourcing activity always entails mutual benefit, so there should always exist a reward for the crowdworker.

      When the definition says "the voluntary undertaking of a task", I don't mean that the crowdworker realizes the task freely or without expecting anything in return. I mean that the decision is made freely. They find the task interesenting, or they like the rewards promised (money, points, etc.), and they participate.

      1. could it be the chance that companies are taking the best ideas of this crowdworkers to their personal interest for ¡maybe a small reward, something like stealing good ideas??????’

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