Crowdsourcing Research Primer

In crowdsourced research, resources are combined across researchers to conduct studies that could not be accomplished on their own.

“Crowdsourcing flips research planning from ‘what is the best we can do with the resources we have to investigate our question,’ to ‘what is the best way to investigate our question, so that we can decide what resources to recruit.” (Uhlmann et al., 2019, p. 7).

Crowdsourcing research is new to special education research, but in other fields, it has been around for decades. Many aspects of research can be crowdsourced, such as deciding what ideas to research, analyzing data, and conducting peer review (Uhlmann et al., 2019). The most common use of crowdsourcing is regarding data collection, in which many researchers collect data, resulting in much larger and diverse samples of study participants. Examples of crowdsourced data collection outside of special education include:

  • Citizen data collectors: Fields such as astronomy and geology utilize volunteers to collect data that researchers would never be able to collect on their own. Many of these projects and opportunities to become data collectors are compiled on the federal government citizen science website.
  • Psychological Science Accelerator: The Psych Accelerator is a network of over 1,000 research labs, across more than 70 countries, conducting large-scale studies on topics such as gendered prejudice and stereotype threat.

Conducting crowdsourced research, especially involving crowdsourcing data collection, in special education has many potential uses such as:

  • Implementing large scale observational studies so we can better understand how students with disabilities are provided services across the country
  • Validating evidence-based practices using nationally representative student samples
  • Enabling adequately powered group studies with low-incidence populations to be conducted
  • Dramatically increasing the number of direct and conceptual replications so we can efficiently determine what interventions work for who, under what conditions (Coyne et al., 2016).

Ultimately, we envision crowdsourcing will democratize the research enterprise by enabling more and diverse researchers to be involved in large-scale research studies involving large and diverse participant samples that ask and answer critical research questions aimed at improving services for children with disabilities. By facilitating crowdsourcing of data collection across many researchers, we hope the Special Education Research Accelerator (SERA) will play a core role in democratizing the research enterprise in our chosen field — special education.


Bill Therrien

Co-Principal Investigator

William J. Therrien, Ph.D., BCBA, is a Professor in Special Education at UVA. He is an expert in designing and evaluating academic programming for students with disabilities, particularly in science and reading. Along with co-directing CASPER, Dr. Therrien co-edits Exceptional Children, the flagship journal in special education, and is Research in Practice Director for UVA’s Supporting Transformative Autism Research (STAR) initiative. Therrien assists Cook with developing infrastructure and supports for SERA, conducting the pilot study and assessing the usability and feasibility of using SERA to conduct future replication pilot studies.

Welcome to the Special Education Research Accelerator

Bryan G. Cook, William J. Therrien, Vivian C. Wong, Christina Taylor

We are pleased to welcome you to the Special Education Research Accelerator (SERA). SERA is a platform for crowdsourcing data collection in special education research across multiple research teams. When we read about the Psychological Research Accelerator, which crowdsources data collection for massive studies in the field of psychology conducted throughout the world, we began to think about the potential benefits of crowdsourcing in special education research. In essence, instead of a single research team conducting a study, crowdsourcing of data collection involves a network of research teams collecting data. Crowdsourcing allows researchers to flip “research planning from ‘what is the best we can do with the resources we have to investigate our question,’ to ‘what is the best way to investigate our question, so that we can decide what resources to recruit’” (Uhlmann et al., 2019, p. 713).

Given that there are relatively few students with disabilities, especially low-incidence disabilities, in schools, it is often difficult for special education researchers to obtain large, representative samples for their studies. Moreover, given limited grant funding, relatively few researchers in the field have the resources to conduct studies with large, representative samples on their own. Crowdsourcing data collection across many research teams seemed to us to be well-suited to address these and other challenges faced in special education research.

However, implementing crowdsourcing in special education research presents many challenges. Can interventions be conducted with fidelity across many different research teams? How will data be managed? How will implementation fidelity be measured? How will IRB issues be handled across multiple institutions? Fortunately, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) funded an unsolicited grant for us to develop and pilot a platform for crowdsourcing research in special education research (i.e., SERA) to examine these and other issues. By involving many different research teams in data collection of studies, SERA can generate large and representative study sample, involve diverse sets of researchers, and examine whether and how study findings vary across researchers and researcher sites, in ways that studies conducted by a single research team could not.

This website has two primary functions: (a) a public-facing site to provide information and resources related to SERA and crowdsourcing research in special education, and (b) a hub for research partners to access resources and interact with SERA staff related to ongoing SERA projects. We hope all of you explore the website to learn more about SERA, the team behind SERA, and our SERA research partners. Please check back periodically as we provide updates. For our research partners, please be on the lookout for an email over the next few weeks which will contain your login credentials, as well as provide additional information on navigating pilot study resources and materials.

Currently, we are in the process of preparing to conduct a crowdsourced randomized control trial that conceptually replicates Scruggs et al.’s (1994) study of acquisition of science facts. We will be examining the effect of instructor-provided elaborations and student-generated elaborations on science-fact acquisition for elementary students with high-functioning autism across more than 20 research partners and sites throughout the US.

We couldn’t be more excited about SERA, this website, and our upcoming pilot study. We plan on developing and refining SERA for future use in many different crowdsourced studies in special education. If you’re interested in potentially being involved in future studies, please send us a message using the contact form here. We hope that you’ll find the site interesting and helpful, and that (if you’re a special education researchers) you’ll consider being involved in a crowdsourced SERA study.