But a few months ago, the papyrologists tried something bold. They put up a website, called Ancient Lives, with a game that allowed members of the public to help transcribe the ancient Greek at home by identifying images from the papyrus. Help began pouring in. In the short time the site has been running, people have contributed 4 million transcriptions. They have helped identify Thucydides, Aristophanes, Plutarch’s “On the Cleverness of Animals,” and more.
Ancient Lives is part of a new approach to the conduct of modern scholarship, called crowd science or citizen science. The idea is to unlock thorny research projects by tapping the time and enthusiasm of the general public. In just the last few years, crowd science projects have generated notable contributions to fields as disparate as ecology, AIDS research, and astronomy. The approach has already accelerated research in a handful of specialized fields. And it may also accomplish something else: breaking down some of the old divisions between the highly educated mandarins of the academy and the curious amateurs out in the world.