Article series: Study designs

Crowdsourcing biomedical research: leveraging communities as innovation engines

Journal name:
Nature Reviews Genetics
Year published:
Published online


The generation of large-scale biomedical data is creating unprecedented opportunities for basic and translational science. Typically, the data producers perform initial analyses, but it is very likely that the most informative methods may reside with other groups. Crowdsourcing the analysis of complex and massive data has emerged as a framework to find robust methodologies. When the crowdsourcing is done in the form of collaborative scientific competitions, known as Challenges, the validation of the methods is inherently addressed. Challenges also encourage open innovation, create collaborative communities to solve diverse and important biomedical problems, and foster the creation and dissemination of well-curated data repositories.

At a glance


  1. Challenge platforms and organizations.
    Figure 1: Challenge platforms and organizations.

    The most popular researcher-driven Challenge initiatives in the life sciences (left) and the most popular commercial Challenge platforms (right) are shown. Initiatives, such as DREAM (Dialogue for Reverse Engineering Assessment and Methods), FlowCAP (Flow Cytometry Critical Assessment of Population Identification Methods), CAGI (Critical Assessment of Genome Interpretation) and sbv-IMPROVER (Systems Biology Verification combined with Industrial Methodology for Process Verification in Research), organize several Challenges per year; only the generic project and not the specific Challenges are shown. Among the most popular and successful commercial Challenge platforms are: InnoCentive, which crowdsources Challenges in science and technology (social sciences, physics, biology and chemistry); Topcoder, which serves the software developer community; and Kaggle, which administers Challenges to machine-learning and computer experts, addressing predictive analytics problems in a wide range of disciplines. The figure is not comprehensive, but highlights the most consistent and well-established Challenge initiatives. CAFA, Critical Assessment of Functional Annotation; CACAO, Cross-language Access to Catalogues And On-line libraries; CAMDA, Critical Assessment of Massive Data Analysis; CAPRI, Critical Assessment of PRediction of Interaction; CASP, Critical Assessment of protein Structure Prediction; CLARITY, Children's Leadership Award for the Reliable Interpretation and appropriate Transmission of Your genomic information; RGASP, RNA-seq Genome Annotation Assessment Project; TREC Crowd, Text REtrieval Conference Crowdsourcing Track.

  2. The steps and tasks in the organization of a Challenge.
    Figure 2: The steps and tasks in the organization of a Challenge.

    The main scientific steps of developing a Challenge are: the determination of the scientific question, the pre-processing and curation of the data, the dry run, the scoring and judging, the post-Challenge analysis and the Challenge reporting and paper writing. Technical considerations include: development and maintenance of the IT infrastructure that requires registration, creation of computing accounts, security needed for cloud-based data hosting and development of submission queues, leaderboards and discussion forums. The legal considerations include agreements with the data providers regarding restrictions of data use and the agreement that participants will abide by the Challenge rules. The social dimension includes the creation of an organizing team to plan, run and analyse the Challenge, as well as to determine and put incentives in place for participation, to advertise the Challenge, to moderate the discussion forum and to lead the post-Challenge activities, such as paper writing and conferences. Comms, communications; IRB, Institutional Review Board.

  3. The wisdom of crowds in theory and in practice.
    Figure 3: The wisdom of crowds in theory and in practice.

    Two case studies in the context of a hypothetical Challenge43 or the NIEHS–NCATS–UNC DREAM Toxicogenetics Challenge (a collaboration between the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the US National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) and the University of North Carolina (UNC))60. a–d | The hypothetical example shows three of the predictions that will be integrated into an aggregate ranked list. Two sufficient conditions for integration to outperform individual inference methods are: first, each of the inference methods must have better than random predictive power (that is, on average, items in the positive set are assigned better (lower) ranks than items in the negative set), and second, predictions of different inference methods must be statistically independent. In part b, we show the probability that a given method places a positive or negative item at a given rank. Positive items are assigned lower ranks on average, yet there is still some considerable probability of giving a low rank to a negative item. The area under the precision-recall curve (AUPR) of this method is only 0.41; for a random prediction with these parameters, we would expect an AUPR of 0.3. Suppose now that the integrated solution is computed for each item as the average of the assigned ranks to that item by each method. If, for the sake of simplicity, we assume that all methods have the same probability and the assigned ranks are independently chosen for the positive and negative sets, then the central limit theorem establishes that the average rank probability will approach a Gaussian distribution, with its variance shrinking as more methods are integrated. In this way, the probability of a positive to have lower ranks than negatives increases (parts c and d), resulting in an AUPR that tends to 1 (perfect prediction) as the number of integrated inference methods increases. e | An equivalent trend is seen in the Toxicogenetics Challenge using a different metric (Pearson correlation). The Pearson correlation is shown for all 24 methods submitted, and the box-plot for n randomly chosen predictions out of the 24. The median correlation of the aggregates increases as the number of aggregated methods increases. Parts a–d are adapted from Ref. 43, Nature Publishing Group. Part e is adapted from Ref. 60, Nature Publishing Group.


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Author information


  1. RWTH Aachen University, Faculty of Medicine, Joint Research Centre for Computational Biomedicine, Aachen D-52074, Germany.

    • Julio Saez-Rodriguez
  2. European Molecular Biology Laboratory–European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL–EBI), Wellcome Trust Genome Campus, Hinxton CB10 1SD, UK.

    • Julio Saez-Rodriguez
  3. Department of Pharmacology, University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus, Aurora, Colorado 80045, USA.

    • James C. Costello
  4. Sage Bionetworks, Seattle, Washington 98109, USA.

    • Stephen H. Friend,
    • Michael R. Kellen,
    • Lara Mangravite &
    • Thea Norman
  5. IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, New York 10598, USA.

    • Pablo Meyer &
    • Gustavo Stolovitzky
  6. Department of Genetics and Genomic Sciences, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, New York 10029, USA.

    • Gustavo Stolovitzky

Competing interests statement

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

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Author details

  • Julio Saez-Rodriguez

    Julio Saez-Rodriguez is Professor of Computational Biomedicine at the Joint Research Center for Computational Biomedicine at RWTH Aachen University, Germany. He is also a visiting group leader at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory–European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL–EBI), Hinxton, UK, and co-director of the DREAM (Dialogue for Reverse Engineering Assessment and Methods) Challenges. He has a Ph.D. in process engineering (from the University of Magdeburg, Germany) and was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, USA. His research focuses on computational models to understand the deregulation of signalling networks in disease and to identify novel therapeutics. Julio Saez-Rodriguez's homepage

  • James C. Costello

    James C. Costello is an assistant professor of pharmacology at the University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus, Aurora, Colorado, USA, and co-director of the DREAM (Dialogue for Reverse Engineering Assessment and Methods) Challenges. He has a Ph.D. in informatics from Indiana University, Bloomington, USA, and was a Howard Hughes Medical Institude postdoctoral fellow at Boston University, Massachusetts, USA. His research focuses on systems-level approaches to understand cancer development, progression and therapeutic targets. James C. Costello's homepage

  • Stephen H. Friend

    Stephen H. Friend is Founder and President of Sage Bionetworks, Seattle, Washington, USA. He has dedicated his career to untangling the complex ways that our genes, our environments and our choices combine to form our health. He has pursued his passion from academic research at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), both in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, through entrepreneurial success (Rosetta Inpharmatics) and through being a senior vice president for oncology at Merck, Kenilworth, New Jersey, USA. At Sage Bionetworks, he has built an organization that connects a new way of doing scientific data analysis online to new methods for engaging citizens directly into previously closed research processes. Under his leadership, Sage Bionetworks develops technology platforms for data-intensive analysis, governance platforms for data sharing and reuse, and in collaboration with Gustavo Stolovitzky and the DREAM (Dialogue for Reverse Engineering Assessment and Methods) team helps run Challenges to solve complex biomedical problems.

  • Michael R. Kellen

    Michael R. Kellen is Director of Technology Platforms at Sage Bionetworks, Seattle, Washington, USA, and co-director of DREAM (Dialogue for Reverse Engineering Assessment and Methods) Challenges. He has a Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of Washington, Seattle, USA. He leads the development of information technology platforms, including Synapse, that are focused on enabling large-scale data sharing among researchers in the life sciences and supporting DREAM Challenges.

  • Lara Mangravite

    Lara Mangravite is Director of Systems Biology at Sage Bionetworks, Seattle, Washington, USA, and co-director of DREAM (Dialogue for Reverse Engineering Assessment and Methods) Challenges. She has a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical chemistry from the University of California, San Francisco, USA, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, California, USA. Her research focuses on the application of systems biology approaches to advance our understanding of disease biology and treatment outcomes with the overriding goal of improving clinical care. As part of these efforts, her team works to pilot new approaches to scientific processes that use open systems to enable community-based collaborative research efforts to solve complex problems.

  • Pablo Meyer

    Pablo Meyer is a team leader at IBM Research, Yorktown Heights, New York, USA, and co-director of the DREAM (Dialogue for Reverse Engineering Assessment and Methods) Challenges. He has a Ph.D. in biology from Rockefeller University, New York, USA, and was a Helen Hay Whitney postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University Medical School, New York, USA. His research focuses on single-cell systems biology of Bacillus subtilis and developing computational methods to understand metabolic and signalling network regulation.

  • Thea Norman

    Thea Norman is Director of Strategic Development at Sage Bionetworks, Seattle, Washington, USA, and a co-director of DREAM (Dialogue for Reverse Engineering Assessment and Methods) Challenges. She has a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, USA, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California Berkeley and the University of California San Francisco, USA. She works in close collaboration with Gustavo Stolovitzky to oversee the running of the Sage Bionetworks–DREAM Challenges. She also works with Sage Bionetworks' mobile health (mHealth) services team to develop and implement external collaborations.

  • Gustavo Stolovitzky

    Gustavo Stolovitzky is Distinguished Research Staff Member at IBM Research, Yorktown Heights, New York, USA, adjunct Professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, USA, and Founder and Chair of DREAM (Dialogue for Reverse Engineering Assessment and Methods) Challenges. His research focuses on crowdsourcing in biomedical research, high-throughput biological data analysis, reverse engineering biological circuits, the mathematical modelling of biological processes and nanobiotechnology. Gustavo Stolovitzky's homepage

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. Supplementary information S1 (box) (241 KB)

    Scoring Metrics

  2. Supplementary information S2 (table) (252 KB)

    Examples of collaborative competitions.

Additional data