A Shift of Responsibility?: Public inclusion and the implications of Crowdfunding academic research

The work of Deb Verhoeven and Stuart Palmer, and Rebecca English, have outlined well the growing visibility and success of crowdfunded academic research, with individuals stepping in to lend vital financial support to potential research projects in order for them to come to fruition. Crowdfunding initiatives such as the Deakin University/Pozible collaboration Research My World, Superior Ideas, Experiment, and the (now closed) iAMscientist have provided researchers valuable opportunities to finance their project in a vista of diminishing university and research funding.  

But this landscape, then, raises some implications. One of the central themes surrounding crowdfunding that can resonate strongly for scholars centres on responsibility for funding/finance, and how this can be shifted by the practice. The impetus for financial responsibility, in a setting of more government and research funding cutbacks, can be more squarely placed upon individuals, rather than funding bodies, councils and governments. Thus, the question I would like to pose in this short piece is: will crowdfunding academic research allow (and possibly encourage) authorities and institutions to escape and evade the responsibility of ensuring that funds are available for valuable academic projects? This is a complicated matter though – if individuals want the project to be realised and launched, then initiating a crowdfunding venture may be the most feasible option for some. For example, the process may particularly benefit independent or early career scholars who may have no opportunity to apply for research funding at any institution or academic body, due to lack of stable employment, or have been unsuccessful in the competitive research funding environment.

On the other hand, is crowdfunding provoking a stronger sense of inclusion and communal support between the public and scholarly research, allowing both parties to become more visible to each other than before? For example, there could also be an element of valuable public inclusion at play here – some of those involved in creating campaigns may have wished to secure individual public finance for a project through crowdfunding rather than rely on, or be anchored to, specific public sector or corporate backers. This may be particularly applicable to community research projects that could then proceed without council or local government involvement. In addition, securing the public as funders and capturing their interest may have strong benefits. As Gina Lamendella, an academic who achieved a successful crowdfunding campaign for a proposed research project, stated in a 2013 article for Inside Higher Ed by Lauren Igneo: “It’s the great thing about crowdfunding.

You’re gathering public interest, and people really feel passionate about your idea... makes us feel like our hearts, our minds and our money are in the right place”.  However, as Andrea Hunter has highlighted in her 2015 work on journalism and crowdfunding, these processes can also raise issues of accountability to the public who have invested their money and demands of responsibility towards fulfilling the possible expectations they may wish to impose on the project.

Overall, this situation points to the need for examining more closely the possibilities opened up by the crowdfunding of academic projects, and essentially, the resultant impact that they can generate. The infrastructure of this practice can act as a powerful tool that raises important questions within the broad landscape of reduction in funding across sectors – a timely thread that hints at the complex workings manifest within crowdfunding and the distinctive tinge of the growing shift that may be taking place surrounding financial support for scholarly research.


Crowdfunding for academic research grants and assistantship is something that should be addressed in some areas. As you had posed the question of whether it will allow or possible encourage institutions to go that route, the question that should also be asked is will it still be affective. Crowdfunding mostly runs on social network and you social capital within those networking spaces. If one student comes to a university and figures out they have to crowdfund for their assistantship that may be something that won't be completed depending on the social capital that has been created. Furthermore it would bring up the question of whether or not the institution would be in charge of then giving the student an assistantship afterwards or not.

It had come to my attention recently at Columbia College of Chicago that there have been a few students that were given positions to work for the campus in a department, some having gotten through the payroll process others hadn't, before then being told that they were not to be hired by the school and the program's funding had been cut, allowing only two students to be hired when countless others had been promised jobs. Would this have been avoided if they could have crowdfunded? It's hard to say. Not only is there the risk of alienating those around those that are consistently being bombarded with messages to donate to their crowdfunding campaign but it is also something that should be looked into as well. It would be going to a good cause in funding for a student but would also increase the reach of the topics they may be searching as well.

As you have said, it serves for closer examination.

Lucy, thank you for such a thoughtful post. A few things occurred to me as I read, and I am particularly interested in the following comment: “[Crowdfunding] may particularly benefit independent or early career scholars who may have no opportunity to apply for research funding at any institution or academic body…” I’m at the dissertation stage, and, being a humanities student, little of my research, though often qualitative in nature, has required the kind of funding for a more large-scale project like the ones discussed in this Field Guide Survey. However, large or small, institutional funding available to grad students for their research is at best scarce but, in many cases, just nonexistent, at least insofar as my experience has been. This is unfortunate given the expectation that grad students turn out a few publications prior to going on the market. 

My own personal financial challenge associated with research I’ve conducted refers to fees for transcription and small tokens of gratitude for participants (e.g., $10 Starbucks card). At one point, I hired someone in the Social Science Research Center to help me transcribe rather lengthy interviews. On the surface, the hourly fee seemed reasonable and would certainly free me up to address other facets of the project; however, I—and the transcriber—sorely underestimated the time needed to transcribe my interviews. These things happen, but I was a grad student who incurred what what felt like a very large debt I had not anticipated. Crowdfunding appeals to me because I think I fit the profile of “an early career scholar” with few institutional funding opportunities. Launching a small crowdfunding project could have helped me greatly, though, and in thinking about Carly Kocurek’s post about the labor of crowdfunding, I wonder if seeking this kind of alternative funding would have been more or less work than combing through database lists of research grants for graduate students and then applying within that competitive landscape. 

At any rate, I’d argue that given the expectation that grad students publish, institutions should provide at least some small opportunity for funding grad student research—even for those of us in the humanities. Thanks again for talking about the implications of crowdfunding for shifting responsibility.

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