Crowdfunding: training that pays for itself


Pocket change, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Researchers who run crowdfunding campaigns are trying to raise funds for their research. That would seem to go without saying.

Except, if that’s the case, and if research funding is so hard to get, then why isn’t everybody doing it?

When I looked for crowdfunding campaigns run by academic staff at Australian universities, I found only 63% (27) of universities were represented [Data on Figshare]. As far as I could tell, 37% of universities hadn’t had any crowdfunding campaigns run by staff members. Of those that had, only three (7%) had run more than five campaigns. Why is that?

I need to do more work before I can answer that question, but some of the answers revolve around prestige (these aren’t national Research Council grants) and inertia (it is hard to get big organisations to do new things).

I can’t change the lack of prestige around crowdfunding. That will take time – in some quarters, eons may pass.

But I can tackle inertia. Read more of this post

Why the hell am I doing a PhD?


No entry, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Did I mention that I’ve enrolled in a Masters by Research, looking at crowdfunding? No? It must’ve slipped my mind.

Actually, I’m a bit shy about talking about it. I don’t want to jinx it.

I want to upgrade to a PhD, if all goes well. But I’m scared it won’t go well. All my hopes and fears sit within it. I want it to go well, and I believe that I can do it, but I’m still scared.

I’m scared for a lot of reasons. I watched my partner take five years to do her PhD. Five years! She spent a whole year on one chapter. It almost broke her. A lot of my friends have done PhDs and only one of them had a good time. Everybody else hated it, and some of them never finished. So, I swore that I’d never do one.

From past experience, I know that I am, at best, an average student. I love the idea of studying; I just don’t like doing the work. It took me five years to struggle through my undergraduate degree. Too much time playing, not enough time studying! Having no clue why I was there didn’t help either!

My previous efforts to get a PhD didn’t get past the ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I had a PhD?’ burst of enthusiasm.

Oh yes, I’ve been down this road before. More than once, actually. I work in a university. I work with researchers every single day. There seemed to be a million reasons why I should do a PhD.

Nowadays, not so much. There seem to be a million reasons not to do a PhD. Read more of this post

Breaking funding boundaries

This is the second half of a talk (first half here) that I gave recently at the University of Melbourne Researcher@Library event.

Thanks to all involved for inviting me and making me feel so welcome.  It was great fun!

A large tree limb growing through a large fence.

The fence and the tree, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

The academy is a tough place at the moment. It needs some hacking.

In Australia, we are at the lowest level of government funding for research since we started keeping records. It doesn’t look like that situation is going to get better any time soon.

At my university, 60% of academic staff are paid by the hour. People with PhDs are working at multiple universities just to pay the rent, being paid the same way that they would be if they were behind the counter at a 7-Eleven. This isn’t uncommon across Australia, and the trend is towards more casualisation of the workforce, not less. This is a worldwide pattern, not just an Australian one.

Things are even worse if you are a woman. Universities are gendered places, and there are historical biases against women in most research funding schemes.

There is a real human cost to all this, as Sophie C. Lewis reminded us recently when she talked candidly about her year of tears. New researchers, young researchers, female researchers, researchers in non-traditional areas, researchers whose first language isn’t English… We are all at risk within this system.

I can’t fix this system. I don’t know who can.

What I want to talk about today is some of the ways that we can go around the system, some of the ways that we can break through these boundaries – institutional, structural, and invisible. Some of the ways that you, as an individual, can make a difference to your own situation. Read more of this post

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.

Read more of this post

In defence of the crowd

This post was originally submitted as a comment, in response to Milking the Crowd, by Melonie Fullick at Speculative Diction.

A view of the climate change protest crowd in Melbourne

So many people II, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Melonie has written a thoughtful piece that highlights some of the potential issues with crowdfunding. It is a debate that is worth having. I’m pro-crowdfunding, but I’d be the first to admit that there are issues to be sorted out.

There are specific problems around crowdfunding, but I don’t think that lack of peer review is one of them. While government research funding is usually peer reviewed,  industry and philanthropic funding sources generally aren’t. They are competitive, but they aren’t peer reviewed. Industry funding applications are often selected by a manager or committee, on advice from an in-house expert. They are then approved by a board of directors. Some large philanthropic schemes use peer review, but most don’t. In Australia (and, I’m guessing, elsewhere), most funds are distributed by committee, perhaps on advice from a program manager, who apply a score based on their selection criteria.

Non-expert publics do not have the same priorities as peers in your field, just as industry research sponsors and philanthropic organisations do not have the same priorities as peers in your field.

Crowdfunding is, as you point out, a campaign for donations. Donations to universities for research (which include scholarship funds, professorial chairs, building funds as well as research project funds) are never peer-reviewed, in my experience.

Moreover, this absence of peer review can be recast as a benefit of crowdfunding. There are some areas of promising work that find it very difficult to gain peer support, in part because the go against the common wisdom and, sometimes, because they are reworking areas that are perceived to have been ‘done’ already. There are also some types of research, such as replication studies and taxonomy work, that find it very difficult to secure government funds. The Australian Research Council, for example, explicitly says that it will not fund:

“compilation of data, computer programs, research aids and tools; descriptive data compilations, catalogues or bibliographies; or teaching materials.”

These restrictions don’t apply to crowdfunding.

The Australian Research Council also won’t fund anything less than A$30,000 per annum. In part, this is because peer review is expensive. Crowdfunders are happy to fund small projects: top-up funds, student projects, outreach programs, all sorts of things that it wouldn’t be worth peer-reviewing via a government funding scheme.

Read more of this post

What gets covered in science blogs?

Portrait of Paige Brown JarreauPaige Brown Jarreau is a PhD candidate in mass media and public affairs at the Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University. She studies the intersection of science communication, journalism and new media. She uses a variety of approaches, both quantitative and qualitative, to study science news norms, beliefs and values of science communicators, environmental psychology and science media framing effects.

She is the author of From the Lab Bench, a science blog hosted on, where she is a community manager. She  writes on a semi-regular basis for the Science & Society section of EMBO Reports.  She tweets at @FromTheLabBench.

A version of this post originally appeared on From the Lab Bench, as Something is wrong on the Internet! What does the Science Blogger do?

Full disclosure: This article discusses a fundraising campaign. One of the editors (@jod999) has contributed to that campaign.

Some of the most common words mentioned during 33 of Paige's interviews with science bloggers.

Some of the most common words mentioned during 33 of Paige’s interviews with science bloggers.

Science blogging is one of those curious social media phenomena that has moved mainstream in the science news ecosystem.

Once known as ranty opinion forums, blogs have become one of the best resources of science and science communication online.

Science blogs have spread their influence into the worlds of scientific publishing, science journalism, science policy and popular science. But as they have, we could argue that science bloggers themselves are becoming more accountable to the broader science news ecosystem, even more professionalized.

What do modern science blogging practices and values look like? How are science bloggers deciding what to cover, and what impacts are these decisions having? What does the modern science blogging network look like, and how are bloggers being rewarded for their dogged fixing of science on the internet?


Worth more than money

Power Ranger for sale (Photo by Peter Dutton:

Power Ranger for sale (Photo by Peter Dutton:

At the moment, there isn’t a lot of glory for an academic in crowdfunding.

If you want to get promoted at a university, you need to secure funding from one of the key funding bodies in your country (the National Science Foundation in the USA, for example, or one of the Research Councils if you are in the UK, Canada, or Australia).

There is this dodgy hierarchy of funding with one or two national funding schemes at the top, followed by other national funding, then by other government funding, then industry/philanthropic funding (depending on your discipline). In that hierarchy, crowdfunding sits somewhere down the bottom, as a type of philanthropic funding.

Crowdfunding is a lot of work, and it isn’t work that most researchers are familiar with. It takes most people into areas where they may not be comfortable. At its heart, crowdfunding is a funding campaign and the two key tools are Facebook and Twitter. Not everybody wants to take their professional identity into Facebook. They might prefer to keep it as a personal realm (despite the fact that work leaks in). While they might be happy to build a professional identity on Twitter, for most academics this is new territory. Unsettling new territory.

The point of a funding campaign is to ask for money. That’s what the ‘funding’ bit means.

While academics are generally good at promoting their research, they aren’t good at asking their friends and family to give them money to fund their research. Often, they don’t understand why anyone would want to fund their work. They like it, and they see the benefit in it, but they’ve spent the better part of their lives explaining to Uncle Ted ‘exactly what is it that you do, again?’.

Given that most crowdfunding campaigns start by mobilising personal networks, that means not just explaining to Uncle Ted what the work is, but asking Uncle Ted to put his hand in his pocket and donate to it, and have him then tell all his friends to do the same. A lot of people feel uncomfortable about that.

I don’t shy away from these topics when encouraging people to try crowdfunding, which may explain why I haven’t had any takers at my university yet. Perhaps I should try to emphasize the positive side of a crowdfunding campaign. There are lots of positives to emphasise.

Read more of this post