Crowd-sourcing social science: How an MSU professor is engaging the public in one-of-a-kind Supreme Court research

January 10, 2020 - Liz Schondelmayer

Crowdsourcing is a controversial yet innovative product of the internet age, allowing for individuals and organizations to harness the collective power of the world wide web for fundraising and brainstorming. But can crowdsourcing also be used for academic research? 

Social scientist Dr. Ryan Black from the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University has proven that, in fact, it can. Together with Dr. Timothy Johnson from the University of Minnesota, Dr. Black has received a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to crowdsource the transcription of handwritten notes taken by justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. 

This project will create an accessible archive of notes which will provide new insight into the decisions that Supreme Court justices make. 

“When the Supreme Court decides cases, they meet in a locked conference room into which no one else is allowed,” explained Dr. Black. “However, we can get an idea of what happens in these meetings from the notes the justices take.” 

“Our objective to harness advances in crowd-sourcing and data-sharing to transcribe these handwritten notes and create a record of what took place in these meetings for thousands of cases decided over a 50-year period.” 

Dr. Black and Dr. Johnson partnered with Zooniverse to connect with potential transcribers for the project. Many participants have been fellow academics and students, but Dr. Black also notes that many contributors are participating as a hobby. 

Each image of a justice’s note is transcribed multiple times by different users to ensure accuracy. The project aims to create an archival record of the Court’s terms from 1946 to 1993. 

While transcribing handwritten notes comes with its challenges, obtaining those notes can be difficult as well. “We’re constrained by is the availability of the justices’ notes. They’re part of the justice’s archival materials, so once they retire, they can do whatever they want with them,” explains Dr. Black. “For example, Justice Hugo Black (who served on the Court from 1937-1971) told his family to burn his papers on his deathbed.”

According to Dr. Black, because there are no rules in place mandating what justices must share, it is also entirely possible for justices to self-censor and pull documents they feel could damage their reputation if they choose to share their documents at all. 

Despite these obstacles, this project will establish a one-of-a-kind window into Supreme Court justices’ decision-making processes, which is increasingly important for Scholars and citizens alike as the Court continues to evolve and shape the United State’s policies. 

“It’s been a long project, but it’s one that my collaborator and I are really excited to work on because it’s something we wouldn’t have been able to do10 years ago because these crodwe-sourcing platforms didn’t exist,” says Dr. Black. 

The project is estimated to wrap up in May 2021. Interested participants can go here to help transcribe the Supreme Court justices’ notes.