Giving a voice to early-career researchers

Here at the Research Whisperer, we’re fans of crowdfunding and Open Access. When we heard about Lateral’s campaign to crowdfund so that it could continue publication and pay its contributors, we invited them to tell us more. Thanks, Andrew and Tessa, for filling us in on your wonderful project. 

Andrew Katsis is a behavioural ecologist and third-year PhD candidate at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia. He has been Life Science editor for Lateral magazine since 2015.

Andrew tweets from @andrew_katsis.

Tessa Evans is a chemist who now works at the New Zealand Science Media Centre. She has been involved with Lateral magazine since 2015, and has been its editor-in-chief since 2017. Tessa tweets from @tessaeevans.

If you’d like to support emerging science writers and engaging science writing, you can still contribute to the Lateral campaign. If we all chipped in the money we’d spend on a couple of coffees, their target would be met! 


Cover of Lateral magazine for "Slow" (#12) - illustration by Olivia Baenziger

Cover of Lateral magazine for “Slow” (#12) – illustration by Olivia Baenziger

Scientific research is an important pursuit, but all your hard work may be for nothing if your results and insights don’t find their way beyond the lab bench to policymakers and the public. Because of this, researchers are increasingly encouraged to communicate their work to non-scientists, through media appearances, blogs, podcasts and other forms of public engagement.

At the same time, we have also seen the rise of professional science communicators—non-researchers who specialise in converting jargon into easily digestible language. But you can’t rely solely on science communicators to do your job for you; people also want to hear directly from the source.

How else will the public (or your family) know what you’ve been working so hard on, if you can’t explain it to them?

Learning how to communicate research doesn’t come easily to many people, and most graduates simply aren’t trained in how to talk to a general audience. In Australia, for example, there are only a handful of standalone courses in science communication, and just two degrees that specialise in this skill: the Master of Science Communication at the Australian National University, and the newly-minted course of the same name at the University of Western Australia, which starts this year.

Since there are so few opportunities within institutions, we wanted to help researchers develop these science communication skills.

In 2015, a small group of emerging researchers — mostly recent graduates from the University of Melbourne — came together to create Lateral, an online magazine written and edited by early-career scientists.

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Patronage as a research crowdfunding model

Martin Pfeiffer with a box of National Nuclear Security Administration FOIA documents.

Martin Pfeiffer with a box of National Nuclear Security Administration FOIA documents. Used with permission.

Meet Martin Pfeiffer. Martin uses anthropology to investigate nuclear weapons. That’s amazing, in and of itself. Even more interestingly, Martin is crowdfunding his research and I’m all in favour of research crowdfunding.

What really got me excited, though, was how Martin is crowdfunding his research. Martin is crowdfunding on Patreon.

Patreon works differently to most other crowdfunding services. On Patreon, you donate a small amount regularly. For example (and in the spirit of full disclosure), I support Martin for US$2 per month.

As I write this, people like me are donating $551 per month to Martin’s research, and that funding base is growing. On 27 June 2017, when I subscribed, Martin was receiving $442 in donations. Now it is $551. By the time you read this, it may have crept a bit higher.

$550 per month doesn’t seem like much, but $6,000 a year (you lose a bit on fees) can be handy when you need to pay for copying, or freedom of information requests, or local travel, or any of the myriad of costs that may or may not be covered by your research grant.

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Crowdfunding: training that pays for itself

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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?

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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.

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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.

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