Crowdsourcing the Work of a Great British Social Reformer

Published Feb-23-15

An open innovation collaboration between academia and members of the public to transcribe the work of Jeremy Bentham, a great 18th and 19th-century philosopher and social reformer.

University College London, United Kingdom

The Story:

Crowdsourcing the Work of a Great British Social Reformer There are many reasons why people knuckle down to get involved in open innovation challenges. For example, there is intellectual stimulation, possible financial reward, the chance to be part of something bigger, fun, giving something back, practicing skills and mastering new ones, recognition, passion for a subject and doing something that is interesting.

Transcribe Bentham

Many of these motivations are driving people to take part in the Transcribe Bentham project. This is a huge collaborative effort to transcribe and digitize the unpublished works of Jeremy Bentham, a British philosopher and social reformer who died in 1832, and whose stuffed and embalmed remains are on display at University College London. He advocated individual and economic freedom, was an early proponent of animal rights and believed in complete equality between the sexes.

Since the crowdsourced project launched in 2010, several thousand manuscripts have been transcribed by people from all over the world. There are approximately 60,000 manuscripts in total, covering some 30 million words. They feature such topics as law, philosophy, economics, politics and history.

As of the end of February 2015, 12,458 manuscripts were completed and 90% of these had been checked and approved by the project’s editors.

To get involved, participants create a user account, then select a manuscript and transcribe. There is also a discussion forum for people to share ideas. Anybody can take part as no specialist knowledge or training is required. The open innovation project is attracting individuals who are interested in Bentham, his ideas and indeed his handwriting too.

The work is sometimes painstaking, because Bentham's sloping handwriting can be hard to make out in places. There is a long list of guidelines instructing participants on how to enter codes for additions, deletions, margin notes and so on.

Valuable Contribution

The crowd is making an important contribution because their endeavors will acts as a basis for future editions of ‘The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham’. The transcripts will also be a valuable, searchable and easy to read archive for future studies – Bentham’s handwriting wasn’t always the epitome of neatness.

The organizers of the project hope that it will lead to new discoveries about Bentham’s work and his ideas. So far, volunteers have made numerous discoveries such as manuscripts relating to Bentham’s views on the treatment of animals and a part of his 1802 attack on the practice of transporting convicts to Australia.


The Transcribe Bentham project is a fascinating example of how academia and the public can work well together on a project of immense value. All participants will be credited for their contributions. It is expected that opening up Bentham’s archive to the crowd to transcribe will shave years off the work.

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