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.
"agency to the public"
I'm really intrigued by the ideas of attributing "agency to the public" and the "community relevance" of academic scholarship as relates to crowdfunded research. Academics still often receive criticism about the relevancy of their (funded) research to the "real" world. That a crowdfunded research project is in part contingent on the public essentially voting up the project through monetary donations does suggest the potential for a shift as regards public agency (and ownership of research?) in determining what kinds of research is worthy of supporting.
As I think more on this, I'm wondering if you can share more about the people (the public) who have helped fund some of the Research My World projects. Many of the projects I skimmed share the commonality of being, to borrow from the top-level description of the site, solution-oriented with the potential to make a "real impact" on various communities. So, there's that element of the public in terms of who becomes the beneficiary of the research. Can you speak at all to the demographics of the crowdfunders themselves? If they are the public who enables the research through monetary donations, who are they? I wonder if there's a profile that can be identified amongst funders for these kinds of projects and if knowing more might be useful in exploring the notion of agency.
Thanks so much for a great post. If no one else picks your brain about the increased social presence of researchers, I'll be back!
Practical vs Theoretical research and the public interest.
Thank you for this contribution. It is promising to learn about initiatives such as Research My World which engage the public and bring awareness to community needs while also providing more opportunities for academic research. Your post evokes a number of questions!
After spending some time at the Pozible website, it seems that most of the projects focus on practical needs which offers a clarity in describing value of the intended research. Indeed, this is one of the advantageous aspects of this initiative as it regards the willingness of the public to become involved via funding or actually assisting in the research. I think there is at least a general similarity to other crowdfunding campaigns I’ve seen on other platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, the salient distinction being that Research My World is a collaboration between a university and a crowdfunding platform. With that distinction in mind, how do you think the type of research project affects the interest/support of the public? Is there a concern that inviting the public to fund research through crowdfunding would perhaps benefit particular disciplines over, and to the detriment of, others? In your post you acknowledged the increasing difficulty in receiving funding for research. I wonder if trends in campaign funding would be used to justify state or institutional decisions to move funding away from departments. Admittedly, as a student in the Humanities, I am concerned that inviting and relying on public interest and support could further entrench the predominant (at least in the U.S.) theme around higher eduction, which dismisses the Humanities as unimportant and impractical, especially considering the neoliberal hold on university culture.
That being said, I ultimately believe programs such as Research My World is a step in the right direction as it regards the ever decreasing access to research funding via more traditional channels, i.e. grants, fellowships, etc.
Academics as Analysts” and “Crowds as Content-providers”
I think it was a good point for you to mention "Academics as Analysts” vs. “Crowds as Content-providers” as they certainly are two separate things. Especially as most of what is seen in terms of crowd-funding is going towards the creation of something that people didn't know they wanted (ie. hoverboards or the invention that makes filling up water balloons that much easier) or to helping others visualize dreams (such as publishing a book, making a film, or aiding the medical bills of those that may not be able to pay for treatment of something). There is a distinct sense of the sorts of things that are typically crowdfunded and academics aren't ones that are usually attributed to it at first thought.
Though that's not to say it's not possible. As you have mentioend academic reserach has been crowdfunded as well as there being those that are crowdfunding to raise enough money for tuition into differing schools of medicine, such as veterinary school. There is no limit to what it could be used for and it can serve a proportional aid to academics when the time comes.
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