Crowdfunding and its implications for academic research and pedagogy

DVerhoeven's picture

New peer-to-peer exchange platforms have the potential to “re-engineer” the university generally and scholarly practice more specifically. For example, Crowdsourcing (distributed problem solving in which a large number of people address an undertaking via micro-tasking) has been enthusiastically adopted as a form of “citizen-science” or “networked science” by many researchers. The Higher Education sector however, has been comparatively slow to take up the opportunity afforded by Crowdfunding (distributed financing in which a large number of people address a problem via micro-funding). This may be because Crowdsourcing doesn’t necessarily challenge the conventional exceptionalism of scholarly expertise (although it has this potential). Crowdsourcing often simply reiterates the distinction between “Academics as Analysts” and “Crowds as Content-providers”. 

On the other hand, the Crowdfunding of academic projects has prompted a thorough reconsideration of the role of the public in setting research agendas. Crowdfunding and social media platforms alter academic effort through the disintermediation of research funding, the reduction of compliance burden, and opportunities for market validation and so on, as well as the particular workflows of scholarly researchers themselves through improvements in “digital presence-building”, the provision of cheap alternative funding, and opportunities to crowdsource non-academic knowledge. Additionally, crowdfunding has a broad impact for universities in terms of how these institutions are positioned in an increasingly networked environment. The attribution of agency to the public in establishing research opportunity based on community relevance is suggestive of a new form of engagement-led, post-disciplinary scholarship. 

This has certainly been the experience we’ve had at Deakin University in Melbourne where for the past two years we have crowdfunded more than 20 academic research projects in a broad range of disciplines in an initiative called Research My World. Research My World is a rewards-based, “all or nothing” form of crowdfunding in which the public receives a small reward for their financial pledge and researchers receive no funds if their project target is not met by a nominated date.

Although it would be easy to see initiatives such as Research My World as a response to a tightening academic funding environment this would not be entirely true. The project, a collaboration between Deakin University and crowdfunding platform pozible.com, was initiated in large part to secure new sources of funding for the ‘long-tail’ of academic research, in other words to provide opportunities to researchers already denied access to large-scale government or private sector investment. Typically researchers with limited track record but great ideas pitch to the public for relatively minor amounts of project subsidy ($5,000-$20,000 AUD). Happily, many of the successfully crowdfunded research projects have gone on to receive more substantial interest from granting bodies and venture capital after they have been crowdfunded. The immediate prospect of legislation enabling equity-based crowdfunding (in which ownership in the research enterprise is exchanged) has the potential to further amplify the amounts of capital that can be raised by enterprising academics.

However, the benefits of crowdfunding extend well beyond the capitalization of research projects. The participation of researchers in crowdfunding their work had the additional advantage of catalyzing their social media presence and practices. For the researchers themselves this has consistently proven to be the most revelatory and constructive aspect of their participation in crowdfunding. On the downside, despite their evident success as networked, publicly engaged and entrepreneurially-financed academics, these newfound attributes are not always recognized by the wider university community nor rewarded within the traditional mechanisms for academic advancement. Which, at the very least, is testament to just how “disruptive” crowdfunding really is in university research settings.

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Jonathan O'Donnell's picture

Thanks, Deb The core question

Thanks, Deb

The core question occupying my mind at the moment is this:

If the universities are keen to get as much funding as possible, then why aren't more universities doing crowdfunding? My data indicates that about a third of the universities in Australia haven't done any crowdfunding at all. Of those that have, only four or five have had five projects or more. The rest have had one or two projects. I assume (but I don't know) that these are people who are doing it off their own bat, without support from their university. Only two universities in Australia seem to have taken a structured approach - Deakin and University of Western Australia.

My working hypothesis is that the rarefied upper echelons of the university (anyone on the executive pay scale) want any legal research funding that the organisation can get, but there is a disjunction between them and the people who run Centres and Labs and shape the agenda of the research as it is actually done. They don't like crowdfunding because it doesn't bring them any prestige. As one said to two (young, female) PhD students who had set up a crowdfunding campaign, "You are bringing the lab into disrepute".

You see this greed for prestige in the way that Australian academics talk about 'Category 1 grants'. What they really mean is ARC and NHMRC grants. There are over seventy funding bodies on the Category 1 list - most academics can only name two. When the Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT) listed their grants on the Category 1 list it was fun to say, "You mean like OLT", when people talked about 'Category 1'. It turned out that wasn't what they meant at all.

The problem with this myopia is that it restricts people's world view. Grant funding is an ecosystem (red of tooth and claw), with a range of different types of funding for different activities. Arts funding; philanthropic funding; international funding; industry funding; internal funding - they all do different things.

I like the idea of the 'long tail of research'. Crowdfunding provides several different ways to fund long tail research:

 

  • It funds small projects.
    The smallest request you can put to the ARC is $50,000. Lots of projects don't need that much, so they aren't eligible.
  • It funds Honours and Masters projects.
    It can be enormously hard to get scholarships for Honours and Masters students - crowdfunding does that really well.
  • It can fund a shortfall.
    Sometimes other funding agencies don't give you quite enough. Crowdfunding can fill the gap.
  • It can fund activities that other agencies won't fund.
    Want to make a 'coffee table' book of your beautiful data? Want to make an artwork with a chemist's glowing algae? Crowdfunding.
  • It can fund projects that cut across the academic mainstream.
    Peer-reviewed research is somewhat conservative. If you are working at right-angles to the mainstream, crowdfunding might help.
  • It can fund replication and negative results (but it can't get them published).
    Replication is vital for good science. Negative results can be as important as positive results (in a positivist paradigm). You can convince the public to fund such work, but may not be able to convince your scientific peers.
  • It can fund exploratory work.
    Crowdfunding is great for seed funding particular where it is promising but exploratory. That is, high risk of failure, but great rewards if successful.
  • It can fund extension work.
    Sometimes you get to the end of your funding before you get to the end of your research - crowdfunding can fill that gap.
  • It can fund people who don't have a track record.
    Because the value of the work is judged differently, a track record of prior work isn't as important for crowdfunding.
  • It can fund straight data collection and other baseline activities that most funding agencies won't touch.
    The Australian Research Council won't fund data collection, in and of itself. It doesn't fund taxonomy work (on this basis) even though these activities are fundamental to research. If you are putting in place the building blocks for research, crowdfunding might help.
  • It can fund on-going activities, like journals.
    Most funding schemes are predicated on the idea that you do one project, and then you come back and do another one. If you build a loyal following, crowdfunding can work like an annual subscriber drive. Or, as with Patreon, as a small, steady income.

 

You mentioned '…tightening academic funding environment…'. Crowdfunding does work extraordinarily well as a 'Fuck You, Government' funding mechanism. That is, one way to galvanise the public to fund a project is to invite them to kick against the withdrawal of government funding. This is essentially what #TeamMopra did on Kickstarter. $93,374 pledged of $65,000 goal when the government cut their funding.

Another way that crowdfunding works is that it acts as a public voting system for projects. Some of the film and creative funding agencies have offered matching funding for crowdfunded projects. This is a great way to give the public more voice in government funding policy. By offering to match funds for some projects, the funding agency is providing a baseline quality assurance program for those projects. In theory, there is no reason that the ratio needs to be 1:1.

Crowdfunding projects are also providing matching funds for other projects. The 'Kicking it Forward' program on Kickstarter is a clever example of this. Any project that promises to 'Kick it Forward' is saying that they will put 5% of their finished product profits back into other projects. Simple. Effective. Generous.

That's enough for now.

Jonathan