Publishing in real time

Cindy WuCindy Wu is a co-founder of Experiment, a crowdfunding platform for scientific research.

Cindy was funded during her undergraduate studies by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to work on cell immunotherapies.

In 2011, she was on the University of Washington International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team when they won the World Championship. Cindy dropped out of grad school to build Experiment, a Y Combinator backed startup.

Experiment is creating a world where anyone can be a scientist. Bill Gates recognized Experiment as a “solution to close the gap for potentially promising but unfunded projects.”

Cindy grew up in Seattle, and now lives in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter: @cindywu.

This post is an interview between Cindy and Jonathan O’Donnell.


Hi Cindy,

Notes at a research seminar that read EAC, Australian Woman's Register, Information infrastructure, interoperability, silos vs networks, services and widgets.

Things I care about, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Thanks very much for agreeing to talk with us at the Research Whisperer, and for co-founding Experiment. For those not in the know, Experiment is a wonderful crowdfunding platform for science. Any researcher in the United States can use Experiment to reach out to the public to raise money for their work. If you don’t know how crowdfunding works, jump onto Experiment now, find a good project and give it some cash. If you get inspired, submit a proposal.

If the project reaches its target, the researcher will receive their funding (less Experiment’s 8% fee) and can start work. While they are raising funds, and during their research, Experiment encourages them to keep in touch with their backers using Lab Notes. For an example of how great these Lab Notes can be, see Paige Jarreau’s updates on her science blogging PhD.

Most crowdfunding services allow project leaders to send out updates, but not everybody uses them. Experiment is trying to understand how these updates work, and how to make them work better.

Let’s start with the basics, Cindy. Why provide an update function at all?

I am a scientist. One of the reasons why I do science is because of the process. There is immense value in understanding the process of how research is done, which is largely locked up in the ivory towers of academia. This research process should be shared openly. In science, the reward is not just in the successful results, but also in all the mistakes made along the way.

Science is not a linear process and the updates show this.

What has been your experience with these updates (lab notes)? What’s the problem you are trying to solve?

Researchers enjoy the lab notes. This is often the first time they have had an  audience that is directly invested in their work. There are two types of updates that have emerged. The first is just a generic update of photos, rich media, and a blog post of what has happened. The second is the data, protocols, results, etc.; the science. This is one of the first steps the scientific community has taken towards publishing in real time.

The first problem we are trying to solve is keeping the backers engaged in the process of the research. Generally, when someone gives to a research project, or a non-profit, the donor has no idea what happens to their donation. On Experiment, you will know exactly how your money was spent, what was purchased, and what resulted from your dollars. It doesn’t matter how much, or how little, you give – the process is the same. We are making granting transparent and dictated by the creators, our scientists.

When they work well, what happens?

This depends on what you define as ‘well’. This is about setting expectations. When a project ends scientists post an expectation lab note where they explain when they will do the work and how often they plan to update their community of backers. Researchers should meet or exceed these expectations. When researchers really exceed the expectations and post very compelling content, these lab notes can get shared widely on the internet. Here is one example of the initial results of a study funded on Experiment: “Initial Success!“.

When they don’t work, what happens?

Nothing. No one reads them. We always advise publishing quality over quantity. You are better off publishing one lab note that is widely shared than ten mediocre lab notes.

You’ve been talking to Experiment backers (like me) about what we think of the updates. What have you found out?

Backers are often surprised by the level of transparency scientists have with their community. If you are a backer, you should know you have the opportunity to participate in the experiment and ask questions. Backers don’t realize that they are able to ask questions and be engaged in the actual science. Some of the best ideas in history were sparked from a conversation between an expert and non-expert.

It seems to me that this is basic research communication and outreach. Do they work that way?

Lab notes work any way you wish them to. We purposely designed an open platform to allow our community to use the lab note system as they please. It can be used as a basic research communication and outreach tool.

As I understand it, one of the problems is that project leaders often don’t send out any updates, especially once they are funded. Taking the money and running seems pretty mean to me. Are you trying to change that behavior?

Taking the money and running is not something we are concerned with because often a large percentage of the funds are from the researcher’s own personal network. We are heavily pushing the setting of expectations early. We never give prescriptive advice at Experiment because we believe the researcher knows best. We do encourage the researcher to post a expectations lab note after the project is funded so that the backers know what to expect, and how often to expect lab notes. It is important to note that this schedule is set by the researcher, not by Experiment.

Some researchers might say that their primary job is to write research papers, so why can’t people just read those?

If you publish open access, people can read them. However, researchers often don’t publish open access, so people can’t read them because they are behind a paywall. Even when papers are open access, they are written in a style that even other researchers don’t understand easily. I think we need to move towards publishing research papers that can be read (and replicated) by any professional scientist. This is the first step towards creating a world where any person can just read a research paper. We are far from achieving that.

Any other thoughts?

We want to live in a world where anyone can be a scientist. We also want to democratize scientific discovery. At Experiment, we’re not stopping until we achieve this vision.

Thanks very much for talking to us about this, Cindy.
Crowdfunding for research is doing amazingly well, both as a funding mechanism and as an amazingly effective method of research communication and outreach. Thanks for helping to make it better.

Thank you for inviting us to interview!

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