Thursday, February 20, 2014


Peer review is an important part of the scientific process. It is used to identify high quality research and establish norms and common practices within the scientific community. But it is also my least favorite part of my job. Reviewing seems to require long uninterrupted periods of effort to make meaningful progress, and it feels too overwhelming to get started unless I absolutely have to get the task done. I find it almost impossible to review an article without a deadline looming over my head.

You probably have tasks like this, too. Perhaps you find it hard to sit down to write a blog post, or to edit an academic article, or to make a scrapbook with the thousands of photos you’ve taken. The task is very important to you, but actually getting it done is almost impossible.

Good news: We can fix this!

Research in time management has shown that having a concrete action plan helps people complete tasks, increasing efficiency and morale. I might, for example, find it easier to review if I were to turn the task into a series of sub-tasks like:
  • Skim the paper
  • Write a paragraph about the paper’s contributions
  • Summarize the pros and cons of the methodological approach
  • Summarize the findings and their reliability
  • Review the related work and look for missing citations
But why stop here? Selfsourcing is a way to help people complete large personal information tasks by breaking them all the way down into tiny microtasks that take only a few seconds to complete. For example, the list of review-related sub-tasks above could be broken down into hundreds of easy-to-perform microtasks, such as skimming a single paragraph, extracting a single contribution, or evaluating the relevance of an individual citation. By algorithmically providing structure to a task and supporting context maintenance, selfsourcing allows us to push existing approaches to task management to the extreme.

Selfsourcing builds on crowdsourcing, where small tasks are completed by a large group of remote workers. While often used for simple tasks, crowd work is increasingly being composed to accomplish complex tasks that are not obviously achievable via microtasks. For example, it has been used to plan complex itineraries, create taxonomies, and organize email. Personal tasks that require deep personal knowledge or contain private information can likewise be accomplished in small steps by an individual using the same processes. Selfsourcing allows us to leverage crowdsourcing’s task decomposition and context maintenance techniques to improve our ability to complete tasks that cannot be done by others.

If the process of reviewing were selfsourced, I expect I would find it easier to spend to spend an hour or two checking off hundreds of review-related microtasks. Or, even better, I could get my reviewing done in short bursts of time that would otherwise be unproductive, such as while standing in line at the coffee shop or riding in the elevator.

Related paper:
J. Teevan, D.J. Liebling, and W. Lasecki. Selfsourcing Personal TasksCHI 2014 WiP.

1 comment:

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