This paper examines the use of crowdfunding platforms to fund academic research. Looking specifically at the use of a Pozible campaign to raise funds for a small pilot research study into home education in Australia, the paper reports on the success and problems of using the platform. It also examines the crowdsourcing of literature searching as part of the package. The paper looks at the realities of using this type of platform to gain start–up funding for a project and argues that families and friends are likely to be the biggest supporters. The finding that family and friends are likely to be the highest supporters supports similar work in the arts communities that are traditionally served by crowdfunding platforms. The paper argues that, with exceptions, these platforms can be a source of income in times where academics are finding it increasingly difficult to source government funding for projects.
Web 2.0 fundamentally shifts the nature of academic work. While there has been some research into the relationship between academics and students in Web 2.0 spaces, especially around Facebook (cf., English and Duncan–Howell, 2008; Madge, et al., 2009; English and Duncan–Howell, 2011) and teaching and assessment (cf., Greenhow, et al., 2009; Pierce, et al., 2011; Richardson, et al., 2012) there is limited research into the implications of new technologies on academic research work, especially in relation to funding. As noted by Pierce, et al. (2011), “the role of computing and the ability to both generate and analyse unprecedented amounts of data has significantly remoulded many arenas of scientific research.”  In the interests of democratizing academic work and increasing participation, players in universities are using Web 2.0 in multiple sites.
This paper explores the use of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding models to fund academic research. McNally, et al. (2012) have argued that crowdsourcing and crowdfunding are being “hailed in the business world as ushering in new and empowering democratic models” however it “remains underutilized and understudied and, with respect to public policy, greatly misunderstood.”  The goal of this paper is to explore the successes as well as the pitfalls and challenges of attempting to use both crowdsourcing and crowdfunding in a small–scale pilot study of home education in Australia. There is some work that examines the pitfalls, challenges and successes of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing in the creative industries (cf., Klaebe and Laycock, 2012). The creative industries, such as music, film and arts, have traditionally used the crowdfunding platforms in Australia, and this use may explain why the research is specifically related to their experience of crowdfunding (cf., Klaebe and Laycock, 2012).
It is useful at this point to define crowdfunding and crowdsourcing. The term crowdfunding is used to denote ventures that are funded “by voluntary donations via an open call to anybody to donate.”  It is organized around a Web site such as Pozible (http://www.pozible.com/) or Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com/). Some of the current projects on Pozible include a documentary exposing the cruelty of Australia’s intensive pig farming industry (cf., http://www.pozible.com/project/33686), a children’s book about a native Australian animal, the bandicoot (an animal closely related to the bilby) who steals a boy’s grandmother’s underwear (http://www.pozible.com/project/29992) and a community engagement project that moved a not–for–profit business supplying suits for women who were returning to work and helps the long–term unemployed get jobs within three months (http://www.pozible.com/project/11925). Some Kickstarter projects include a writing project about living in a van (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/fosterhuntington/home-is-where-you-park-it), a strategy game (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/5livesstudios/satellite-reign) and a pop EP from a young Australian artist (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1690032595/kelsey-guards-original-ep). These sites allow creative projects to be funded via an Internet platform that brings potential project designers together with potential funders (Pozible, 2010).
The projects seeking to be funded are run independent of the platform that hosts the call for funds (Kickstarter, 2013). A project is developed, a funding goal and deadline to meet that goal is set and then the project is opened so that interested parties can pledge money. “If the project succeeds in reaching its funding goal, all backers’ credit cards are charged when time expires. If the project falls short, no one is charged.”  Thus, crowdfunding is generally an all–or–nothing enterprise. By contrast, crowdsourcing generally refers to the participatory online activity of open calls for individuals to voluntarily undertake a task, the key features of a crowdsourcing project is the open call format and the large network of potential participants (Howe, 2005). This project faced some issues in relation to crowdsourcing because, as a model, the open call and large network of potential participants challenged the traditional ‘ethical clearance’ guidelines imposed by the university. One of the major implications of using crowdsourcing was the need to explain the model to the ethics advisor in the faculty, who struggled to understand the nature and the scope of the platform as well as how it functioned. In addition, there were problems with ensuring that all data was de–identified.
This paper deals with the funding realities faced by academics. As public monies dry up, academics are increasingly relying on funding sources provided by businesses or commercial enterprises (cf., Chang, et al., 2009; Lam, 2010; Radder, 2010; Szelényi and Goldberg, 2011) which changes the nature of academic work, scholarship and the knowledge generated by research. At the same time, academics are asked to do more with less time because of increases in teaching load expectations (cf., Vardi, 2009; Nkomo, 2009; Tight, 2010). Thus, academics need to find ways to creatively fund their research projects and maintain their output in a competitive environment. Particularly, the push to find creative funding sources is significant in an environment “democratised” by the proliferation of digital technologies and the drive to create by Gen C (cf., English and Duncan–Howell, 2008; Massanari, 2012).
This paper argues that a crowdsource and crowdfund model can successfully generate funding for academic research work, however, it is not without its pitfalls. While there is some research into the problems of using these tools in design (cf., Massanari, 2012), there is also research that demonstrates that public participation is significantly improved with the use of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding tools (cf., Brabham 2012, 2009). These tools allow for a greater pool of applicants and thus, as Massanari (2012) states, mean that the potential for challenging professional norms of practice, particularly in design. The results of the current project suggest that where academics are working in areas that are closely connected to their communities of interest, then crowdsourcing and crowdfunding allows for more of a participatory involvement with the research subjects that blurs the interviewer/interviewee divide.
The research in this field, particularly in relation to academic research, remains limited. While some studies (cf., Kappel, 2009; Hemer, 2011; Mollick, 2012) have been concerned with the characteristics of crowdfunding, Swan (2012) argues that crowdfunding is a model that can open up research to funding by those who benefit most. In addition, this type of funding can redefine the health research industry along new lines as contract research organisations (Kappel, 2009; Swan, 2012). Similarly, it is often cited as a new model in venture capital (cf., Belleflamme, et al., 2010; Carvajal, et al., 2012; Schweinbacher and Larralde, 2012).
Geerts (2009), in developing a typology of crowdfunding, argues that it “can be considered a new business model that is likely to be relevant for many organizations in many fields.”  It was used extensively in Obama’s election campaign and, Kappel (2009) argues, is changing the ability of interested groups of monetise and mobilise support via the Internet. Agrawal, et al. (2011) argue that crowdfunding allows broadly dispersed groups to come together to fund early stage creative projects, a new phenomenon in entrepreneurial ventures. This phenomenon is considered new because “theory predicts that investors in early stage entrepreneurial ventures will tend to be local ... because the costs of these activities are sensitive to distance.”  In one study of the creative industries, Klaebe and Laycock (2012) examined why people are driven to crowdfund projects. The study, commissioned by the Australia Council for the Arts, found that the majority of reasons people offer support to crowdfunded projects were categorised as altruistic (wanting to help a friend), as community building (wanting to be part of a creative project and help creative people as well as what was termed the social kudos of being part of a cool project) or as wanting to access the rewards that are given with donations (Klaebe and Laycock, 2012). Downsides included a suspicion of online security, as well as concerns over whether the project team can deliver, the lack of personal connection with the donation process and the failure to offer a tax–deductible status.
It is in spite of the lack of empirical data in the field, this project took on many of the ideas on Klaebe and Laycock’s (2012) study to endeavour to fund a project that was building on altruistic, community building. The crowdfunding was attempting to engage with the relatively disparate, but engaged, community of home education families in Australia.
The project was a pilot study into home education families in Australia. The research was designed to examine whether there were links between home–education families’ decisions to choose this model of education and their parenting philosophies. Small–scale interviews were conducted with a group of home–educating mothers in Australia, in a small community approximately 90 minutes drive from a capital city. The area was a rural area with a number of small lot farms close to a beach. Interviews were conducted with 20 women over approximately three months before the beginning of the first teaching semester. The monies raised by the project were used to fund transcribing of the research interviews. Approximately 600 hours of interviews were transcribed and this cost around AUS$2,000.
It was decided to attempt to crowdfund this project after a few failed attempts at attracting university based funding. The decision to crowdfund came from the nature of the community that were the subjects of this research. As this community is largely considered to be operating outside the mainstream because they do not choose to send their children to school, unlike the majority of children whose parents send them to a school (cf., Coleman, 2010), it is noted that they are closely connected because of their special needs (cf., Edelson and Arnold, 2009). These special needs include a place for their children to socialise and meet other children, a function that is usually performed at school. As a result, the home education community is often very tightly connected and the community very strong. It was hoped that their strong community connections would assist in the use of participatory funding through crowdsourcing and also crowdfunding.
There were several instances of crowdsourcing with members of homeschool Facebook groups offering assistance. For example, two women were involved in writing up reviews of literature after a general call was made on one of the Facebook groups. Among the payoffs for these women was the ability to access scholarly articles on homeschooling that were otherwise paywalled and also the use of the findings from high–quality, peer–reviewed academic research on their blogs as a justification or exploration of their own homeschooling interests.
The crowdfunding element of the project was set up using the Pozible.com platform. The Pozible.com ‘About’ page (accessible at http://www.pozible.com/help/i/aboutus) defines the site as a platform as a community for creatives. It is described as having been developed for “artists, musicians, filmmakers, journalists, designers, social change makers, entrepreneurs, inventors, event organisers, software developers and all creative minded people to raise funds” (Pozible, 2010). Potential projects have a worldwide reach, and each project offers rewards for the pledges. In the case of this project, the funding goal was modest, aiming for only AUS$2,000 which was to go some way towards a literature review (AUS$800) and transcribing interview data (AUS$1,200). Pozible projects are generally accompanied by a video that describes the project, a description of the project, information about the ‘team’, a funding goal to be achieved in a selected timeframe (up to 90 days) and the rewards. The rewards were limited in the case of this project, principally because of the nature of the work, to a AUS$20 reward attracting a PDF of each article published, a AUS$100 reward attracting the PDFs and a personal acknowledgement and finally a AUS$500 reward attracting the PDFs, the acknowledgement and a 30–minute consultation on educational issues. The project video can be viewed at vimeo.com/56688123.
While the major contributors were expected to be home educators, this was not the case. The major donors for the current project were the researcher’s family (≈ AUS$1,200) and friends (≈ AUS$300). The remaining donors were home educators in Australia (≈ AUS$250), home educators overseas (≈ AUS$150) and miscellaneous donors who could not be identified with a particular group (the remaining ≈ AUS$100).
However, the finding that the major donors were family corresponds with the work undertaken by Klaebe and Laycock (2012). For example, the principal reason people offer support to crowdfunded projects were categorised as altruistic (wanting to help a friend) which, in the case of this project, was reflected in the family and friend support. Potentially, this support was forthcoming because they wanted to help out their child or partner and, as a result, the major reason for supporting the project was altruistic. In addition, the second highest group of donors was the home education community (with a combined Australian and overseas total = AUS$400). Again, as noted above, community building or wanting to be part of a project and help people was the second most reported reason for participating in crowdfunding projects. Similarly, the platform allowed widely dispersed, interested parties to coalesce around funding a project that benefitted them. In the case of the present project, the dispersal was international and domestic and the benefits were about information sharing and also about widening knowledge of an otherwise underground community.
In addition, the findings of this crowdfunding project support the work of Kappel (2009) who argues that crowdfunding brings together interested groups to monetise and mobilise support for a particular project in which there is an altruistic (family) and community building (home educators) interest via the Internet. The project demonstrated how a group of interested parties, be they interested in the research (home educators and those interested in home education), those interested in having this research undertaken (again, home educators) as well as the family and friends of the researcher (whose interest may be in helping the researcher in her endeavours) were the major groups who monetised the project. Further, the advantage of crowdfunding in this project was that it allowed broadly dispersed groups to come together to fund an early stage project. The funding allowed the researcher to pay for literature help and transcribing however, as the monies raised were modest, the funds were spent on transcribing, the highest expense of the project.
The project set out to use crowdfunding to attract some funding for a small research project into the home education community in Australia. It was anticipated the funds would be used for literature review help and for transcribing. The use of Pozible.com allowed some funding to be attracted to a project where none from traditional university channels had been forthcoming. It may be that the nature of the research project, which focuses on home education and unschool families, was contentious. In an education faculty, it is uncommon for academics’ research interests to fall outside the mainstream educational community. The topic of home education, perhaps because it challenges traditional notions of schooling, is rarely funded. In addition, all academic research in Australia needs to be codified into a research area, for the government’s purposes of classifying and organising the research that is undertaken. However, it is difficult to classify home education research with the closest corresponding codes covering Education not elsewhere classified (139999) or, less clearly aligned, Educational Administration Management and Leadership (130304). Thus, if it is difficult to classify the research into the recognised codes, it may be that it was difficult to justify funding for the project.
While there was funding attracted, and it was sufficient to transcribe the data, there were some drawbacks. Firstly, the funding total was affected by the charges and fees assessed by Pozible. Of the ≅$2,000 raised, Pozible charged $46.95 in “transaction fees” and $150.00 in “service fees”. These fees represented ≅10 percent of the total amount raised. Secondly, the reach was limited in this project. While there is research that indicates that crowdfunding can be successful for academic work, particularly those that relate to medical innovations and startups (cf., Brabham, 2012, 2009; Swan, 2012), in the case of this project, public engagement was limited. This limited engagement may be because the community is not awash with disposable income. One of the findings of previous studies into home education (English, 2013) notes that the community does not have a lot of disposable income because one parent has to stay at home and look after the children. Schools represent a significant benefit to working parents, as they provide childminding during much of the working day. Home education families do not have the benefit of child care outside of the home. Thus, working can be difficult (cf., English. 2013).
The major successes were in attracting the crowdsourcing of literature, and in the attracting of some funding to pay for the transcribing of data. Thus, the results of this project suggest that where academics are working in areas that are closely connected to their communities of interest, then crowdsourcing and crowdfunding allows for more of a participatory involvement with the research. However, it will not work for every project. The findings of this experiment with crowdfuding suggest that it will not work for projects in which there is a limited community involvement, where family and friends of the researcher are unwilling to support the project and where there is limited direct benefit to an interested group. However, its major advantage, particularly in terms of the use of Pozible as a platform, was that it facilitated the project attracting funding from a wide variety of people, including family members.
While crowdfunding of academic work is in its infancy, it may be that it is a model that can be used in future projects. Where there is an engaged community, and in particular one that benefits from the findings of the research, the crowdfunding model can be a useful addition to the other funding models that academics can access. It also helps to have a generous support structure in the form of family and friends willing to donate to the project.
About the author
Rebecca English is a lecturer in education in the School of Curriculum at Queensland University of Technology. Her research interests are in school choice, in particular looking at parents’ choices of home education and unschooling.
E–mail: r [dot] english [at] qut [dot] edu [dot] au
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Received 31 July 2013; revised 25 September 2013; accepted 29 September 2013.
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Copyright © 2014, Rebecca English.
Rent–a–crowd? Crowdfunding academic research
by Rebecca English.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 1 - 6 January 2014
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