Ways researchers can tap the wisdom of crowd

Crowdfunding was a big opportunity for Australian academics who were game to have a go at research that might not make it through peer-review.

It was citizen science at its purest – researchers putting up their stand in the marketplace of ideas and asking people to fund work on a problem passers-by saw needed solving.

Was. “It’s gone very quiet,” says Jonathan O’Donnell from Uni Melbourne, Australia’s expert on the history and practice of research crowdfunding – now completing his PhD on the subject.

There are, he suggests, many reasons why. Universities are conservative organisations, the fundraisers don’t like researchers on their patch, raising money is really hard work and the projects don’t count for promotion – for starters.

“I have had a senior administrator tell me that they would prefer that their academics spent their time writing research papers, which would make them more competitive for traditional funding,” Mr O’Donell states in a forthcoming paper.

But for a while, crowdfunding was looking like a great way for starting scholars to do work that does more than revise their PhD and for researchers to get practical work that needed doing done.

A really great way – in 2017 ANU’s Difficult Birds Group wanted $4000 for nesting boxes for Swift Parrots, threatened by predatory Sugar Gliders – they raised $57,000.

Mr O’Donnell identified 79 university campaigns 2011-15, but since the pandemic focused research fundraising, the leadership needed to crowd-source small projects appears to have vanished.

And yet, while the model suits micro-projects, it also meets a major need. Chair of the Universities Accord team, Mary O’Kane, argues government needs to see community support for research before it will increase funding.

For any entrepreneur in a research leadership role who is willing to have a go, Mr O’Donnell points to broad challenges a crowdfunding strategy must address, including:

  • reputational risk: “Australian universities are conservative institutions … academics need to be willing to fail and willing to fail publicly;”
  • crowdfunding can appeal to entrepreneurial academics but others find asking for money undignified;
  • individuals and institutions need space to fail.

And there is the core question, is it worth the effort, even if money is raised and research completed?

“Academics reported that their crowdfunding work was not recognised in their workload. Most struggled with the demands of a six to eight week crowdfunding campaign on top of their existing workload,” he warns. 



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