Ensuring Ethical Methods and Transparency of Data in Community Crowdfunded Research

As a researcher in a Faculty of Education, whose work is concerned with families who choose non-school and alternative education pathways, my work sits outside traditional or mainstream funding interests. The numbers choosing these approaches to education, although growing, are still a minority of the total educational market. The majority of parents still send their children to the local public school or the local private school. My work is on a fringe and that means making a case for why grant bodies would fund my research, in an area that involves such a tiny minority of education choice, is really difficult.

As such, I’ve had to seek out alternative funding sources to support my research. Research is not free: there’s the transcribing, the reviewing of literature and the time taken out of the other work that is required of academics (read teaching). In order to explore the increasing numbers of Australian families who chose to home educate, I decided to collect money via a crowdfunding campaign, and to employ research assistants using a crowdsource model. This decision posed problems for ethics, as the use of crowdfunding was unknown to the ethics panel (many of whom had never heard of, and thus had no understanding of, crowdfunding and crowdsourcing). Other problems included ethical blurring of research being paid for by the community in which the research was taking place (although, the hard sciences do this frequently as drug companies pay researchers in institutions to undertake research on new drugs), community members accessing the interviews for transcribing (for crowdsourcing) and copyright concerns for non-academics reviewing literature that is restricted to the academic community.

Another issue was transparency of data. If people in the community were involved in transcribing and writing up data on other people in the community, how could ethical concerns about privacy, de-identification and transparency be respected? In order to manage these concerns, I used my crowdfunding campaign to pay for transcribing. I also knew that the community that had funded my research wanted to have access to the findings. As such, I made sure that publications arising were in non-paywalled journals (JUAL and Home School Researcher). And, any that were paywalled (such as the two book chapters arising) were emailed and shared within the community through various Facebook groups. It was also important to advocate for the community that had supported my research and, as a result, I was involved in a parliamentary inquiry into home education in another state as part of my work, because the community asked the government to recognize my involvement on their behalf.

However, using these journals has implications for promotion, as there is limited acceptance of journals that don’t have a high impact factor in promotion applications. Thus, it can be counter-productive for promotion to explore the topics I look at and to use alternative funding sources. However, the faculty was interested in my use of crowdfunding and called me back from maternity leave to give a talk about the experience. They were confused about how it worked, and many did not really understand the process. There was also interest in financing issues, as the crowdfunding campaign was in PayPal and it does not show up in faculty monies that may also be used for making a case for promotion. The university process needs to move with the times and accept this new reality. Particularly in an environment where governments hold scientists and researchers to ransom, fail to fund university departments adequately, but still expect large research output.


Thanks for your post Rebecca, you offer an enlightening account of your experience. My take away from your post reflects what I feel has been a consistent theme developing throughout this discussion...both theoretical and anecdotal. 

"The university process needs to move with the times and accept this new reality. Particularly in an environment where governments hold scientists and researchers to ransomfail to fund university departments adequately, but still expect large research output."

I feel as though the above excerpt from your post emphasizes the most substantial obstacle in the goal of procuring new channels of funding/opportunities (be they methodological, pedagogical, etc.; and which, to be sure, crowdfunding can indeed offer) is the unwillingness of the institutions and universities to adjust policies to reflect the changing landscape in regards to both digital cultures and economic constraints. This cultural dynamic could perhaps be generational, in which case it perhaps requires a new guard to be hired into these advisory positions that more clearly understand the utility of these new tools and can adjust policies accordingly. 

But then still, as Dr. Wittkower spoke to in his post, there is a reluctance of academic culture itself to recognize or engage the public for fear of a negative perception which reveals a problematic self-conception as it regards the role of the academic in a "web 2.0" environment. Gramsci's conception of the organic intellectual and the traditional intellectual is useful as a point of distinction. I think we're in the midst of a paradigm shift in which communicative technologies can work to blend these distinctions based on access to scholarship and the various channels through which people can express their own work or ideas. Concerns arise when we recognize the passing of perhaps less rigorous research and more stylistic forms of scholarship which can lower the bar of what is to be expected, conversely, it opens up lines of discourse that could challenge institutional thinking and revitalize discussions. 

These discussions are truly important as we move forward and continue to navigate our location within a neoliberal culture. 

Rebecca, when I read the statement "Thus, it can be counter-productive for promotion to explore the topics I look at and to use alternative funding sources," I thought of how difficult it is to work within the parameters of a dual disadvantage as relates to more traditional conventions and expectations for publishing and funding academic research. In reference to this, I agree with David's point about the usefulness of Gramsci's "organic" versus "traditional" intellectual as a possible framework for collapsing boundaries and perceptions of what constitutes acceptable, worthwhile, and "rigorous" research. However, I think it's worth clarifying that we are, as demonstrated in your case, dealing with institutional misconceptions about digital culture and practices, (such as publishing in open access journals or availing oneself of crowdfunding platforms to pay for the tedious labor of transcribing) and not less rigorous research or methodologies. Your example illustrates the methods of a concerned, thoughtful, and ethical researcher whose methodologies were carefully charted in order to navigate the various concerns you delineate. I also wonder if the notion of "stylistic forms of research" also falls within the area of institutional misconception. Does research become "stylistic" by virtue of existing within what's now, arguably, more than an emerging set of "conventions" of digital culture? 

On a distantly related note, several years ago I did some empirically-based work on how women academics use the same social media to curate professional and personal selves. The IRB process was interesting. My college's committee was clearly hesitant as they stepped lightly into new digital terrain where determining issues of public versus private and how best to protect the identity of participants, especially when part of my research relied on visual self-presentation. And, I believe I was lucky to work with a committee who was, for the most part, open minded in their attempts to provide me institutional support (permission not money) for my project while also ensuring that participants were protected and the university, of course, incurred little risk of liability. 

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