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.