Open Science and Open Research Funding share mutual spheres of interest. Both want to advance science through the involvement of citizens, and both want to make content available that was previously hidden behind paywalls of traditional science publishers, informal boundaries of scientific-peer-communities, or formal boundaries established by private or public funding-bodies. It can be compared as to how two areas of content creation with similar situation have addressed this demand for open content: journalism and arts. In both realms, the suppliers of content vastly outnumber the financiers of content.
There are many more journalists, writers, photographers out there willing to provide content than there are people willing to invest in large news corporations, which before the digital era were the only institutions capable of funding large-scale news publishing. Notwithstanding the bromide that the Internet has allowed everybody to publish, it has also allowed everyone to find a financier for publishing—through self-publishing on the eBook market through micropayments to crowdfunding sites like Spot.usFootnote 9 or Emphas.isFootnote 10 we have seen the gradual development of democratized news funding.
Similarly in the arts. While true skills in the arts still require perseverance, endurance, and none-the-least talent, the Internet has allowed artists to broaden their audience and reach out to fans, thus converting them into patrons for the arts. Therefore artists now enjoy avenues outside of the traditional mechanism in which content is being produced, sold, and licensed.
Let us examine some cases where this new freedom to find financiers for content has blended dynamically with Open-Access principles. In 2011, the KickstarterFootnote 11 project “Open Goldberg variations”Footnote 12 reached US-$ 23.748 by recording the Bach Goldberg Variations for release into the public domainFootnote 13:
We are creating a new score and studio recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and we’re placing them in the public domain for everyone to own and use without limitations on licensing. Bach wrote his seminal work over 270 years ago, yet public domain scores and recordings are hard or impossible to find. Until now! read the introduction at the Kickstarter project.
The focus of the project is to generate funds for a piece of music that can be found across the world in music stores, but not in the Public Domain with easy redistribution, sharing, and mash-up-possibilities.
A similar idea drove the German platform Sellyourrights.org.Footnote 14 Artists were encouraged to release their music into the public domain by having the music crowdfunded through the fans. Unfortunately, that experiment was stopped when the German GEMA—a collective rights union for artists—prohibited musicians (not just GEMA members) from share their work on the platform.Footnote 15
Spot.us—an American platform to crowdfund journalism—was also motivated by public access to investigative journalism. All crowdfunded articles were released under a CC-by-license, thus allowing attribution and sharing.Footnote 16 Again, the motivation to create content outside of traditional publishing avenues is a key factor in the success of crowdfunding.
Open Research Funding: Some Considerations
A consideration of the criticism voiced against the traditional models of research funding suggests that innovative procedures of research funding should exhibit certain characteristics. For example, the decision-making process leading to a verdict for or against a funding request should be transparent. Ideally, the decision would be taken not only by a small circle of (frequently) only two reviewers, but also involve the entire academic community of the subject in question. Moreover, the question arises as to whether in the age of electronic communication research funding still has to be based on bureaucratic models of delegating responsibility, or whether the direct participation and involvement of researchers as well as citizens might conceivably be practiced. Since research funding is not only subject to the inherent conservative tendencies mentioned above, but also thematically restricted by the available funding programs, it can also be asked as to whether there might not be more flexible vehicles that are better suited for the funding of niche projects unrelated to the buzzwords or academic discourses of the day.
Obviously, crowdfunding meets several of the aforementioned criteria. Jim Giles, while commenting also on the public nature of crowdfunding, states in this context: “Crowd-funding—raising money for research directly from the public—looks set to become increasingly common.” (Giles 2012, p. 252). In principle, crowdfunding can also be more closely intertwined with the model of Citizen Science than traditional research funding organizations—for those organizations only a select and narrowly defined circle of applicants, whether institutions or individuals, are eligible. While this pre-selection of fundees may be justified by quality assurance considerations, it also effectively excludes researchers on the basis of institutional (and thus non-academic) criteria—a practice that in an age of rising numbers of Independent Researchers conducting their research outside of the university framework may well be put into question. Giles also points out the connection between research and the civic society established through crowdfunding: “It might help to forge a direct connection between researchers and lay people, boosting public engagement with science.” (2012, p. 252)
Publicly financed research nevertheless does not appear well-suited to crowdfunding in the classic sense: research as a process is lengthy, institutionally anchored, and team-based. It is also expensive. The results of the research process in many disciplines are not immediately ‘tangible’—rather they are documented in articles, books, or conference presentations, and more rarely in patents and new products. Researchers are normally not judged or evaluated according to how well they can explain their research to the public (not to mention to their students), but according to how successfully they present themselves to their peers in the academic journals, conferences, and congresses of their respective fields.
However, the most important impediment is the research process itself. In ancient times, the ideal of gaining knowledge was the open dialogue in the Agora. Our notion of science since the advent of modernity has been marked by the image of the solitary researcher conducting research work in splendid isolation either in a laboratory or library. Although this myth has long since been destroyed by the reality of current research, it is still responsible for the fact that a substantial part of the publicly financed academic establishment feels no pressure to adequately explain or communicate their research and its results to the public. In particular, there is no perceived need to involve the public even in the early stages of the research project, for example in order to discuss the research motivations and methods of a project.
An alternative model of research is described by Open Science. Open Science aims to publish research results in such a manner that they can be received and newly interpreted by the public, ideally in an Open Access journal or on the Internet. However, Open Science also means that research data are made public and publicly accessible. Yet this concept of Open Access is incompatible with current financing models which profit from limited access to research. The concept is, however, compatible with the basic notion underlying crowdfunding—that of the democratization of patronage of the arts, which bears many similarities to the public patronage of the sciences. A quick glance at the mutually dependent relationship existing between the ‘free’ arts and company sponsors, wealthy individuals, and the funding agencies of the public sector reveals that the supposedly ‘free’ sciences are tied up in an equally symbiotic relationship with political and economic interests.
The democratization of research financing does not necessarily lead to a reduction in dependency but rather increases reciprocity. Nevertheless, in analog fashion to the creative industries, crowdfunding can also be used as an alternative, supplementary, or substitute financing instrument in research funding. Just as crowdfunding does for film, music, literature, or theatre projects, crowdfunding in research has one primary purpose: To establish an emotional connection between the public and an object.
If seen in this way, the ideal of the ‘rational scientist’ seems to contrast with ‘emotional science’. Yet the enormous response elicited in our communications networks by a small NASA robot operating thousands of miles away on another planet testifies to the emotional potential inherent in science. The example of CancerResearchUKFootnote 17 demonstrates that this potential can also be harnessed for crowdfunding. As part of the CancerResearchUK initiative, attempts were made to increase donations to scientific projects by means of crowdfunding. The special draw of the campaign was the chance for supporters to reveal their personal connection to cancer—be it the death from cancer of a friend or relative, the recovery, the effect of medicines, medical advances, or research.
What then should a crowdfunding platform for science look like, if it is supposed to be successful? One thing is clear. It will not look like Kickstarter, Indiegogo,Footnote 18 or their German equivalents Startnext,Footnote 19 Inkubato,Footnote 20 Pling,Footnote 21 or Visionbakery.Footnote 22 The Kickstarter interface we have become accustomed to in the creative industries which can increasingly be considered as ‘learned’ or ‘acquired’ would make little sense in a scientific research context. Kickstarter is successful because four key information elements are made so easily graspable and transparent: Who started the crowdfunding project? How much money is needed overall? How much still has to be accumulated? What do I get for my contribution?
Presumably, crowdfunding for science and research will have to rely on entirely different types of information. A film, for example, is inextricably bound up with the name of a director, or producer, or actors; a team of a different stripe will not be able to replicate this effect. In science, however, the replicability of methods, arguments, and results is key—therefore research and researcher must be independent of each other. The knowledge gap a crowdfunding project is supposed to close is much more salient than the individual researcher. Thus, the big challenge faced by a crowdfunding platform for research is to visualize this gap.
The target amount is of much lesser concern in research crowdfunding than in crowdfunding in the creative industries. In the CancerResearchUK project, this information was visualized—the score of funds received up to the current point was visually indicated on the site—but for most donors the decisive factor in joining was not whether the total amount needed was ₤ 5,000 or ₤ 50,00,000, but the concrete result that a contribution of ₤ 5 or ₤ 50 from crowdfunding would bring about.
Last, but not not least, the rewards: For many research projects, much thought and creativity will have to be devoted to the rewards, if a reward-based system of crowdfunding is to be favored over a donation-based system like BetterplaceFootnote 23. Reward-based crowdfunding on sites like Kickstarter make it essential to provide some material or immaterial rewards to incentivize a contribution; donation-based crowdfunding relies solely on the charitable appeal of a project.
Finding material rewards that are closely connected to the research process for science projects is not an easy proposition—after all, the results of such a project are much more complex than in most crowdfunding projects. Of much greater relevance than the question of what the scientist can give back to the community is hence the problem of what the community can give to the researcher. For this reason, the reward actually lies in the access to science and the research process that participation in the funding initiative allows.
A crowdfunding platform should therefore conceptualize and visualize the following three elements as effectively as possible: (a) visualization of knowledge gaps, (b) results achieved by funds, (c) participation options for supporters.
Although crowdfunding is still the exception among the financing instruments used for research projects, it has nonetheless advanced beyond the merely experimental stage. Among other projects, scientists were able to raise $ 64,000 through the crowdfunding platform Open Source Science ProjectFootnote 24 OSSP for a study on the water quality of the Mississippi River (Giles 2012, p. 252). The way a scientific crowdfunding platform works so far is largely identical to the way platforms devoted to other content categories operate: “Researchers start by describing and pricing a project, which they submit to the site for approval. If accepted, the pitch is placed online and donors have a few weeks or months to read the proposal and make a donation. Some sites operate on a non-profit basis and channel all proceeds to researchers; others are commercial concerns and take a cut of the money raised.” (Giles 2012, p. 253).
Social Payments in Science
Related to crowdfunding, but not entirely the same, are new tools known as social payments. Typically, these are micropayments given for content that already exists on the net. They share with crowdfunding the notion of many small payments generating large income through accumulation. FlattrFootnote 25 and KachingleFootnote 26 are two tools commonly associated with social payments. They are a little different from each other, but share the idea that a content creator embeds a small button on its webpage, and a content financer in pushing that button ships a small payment to the content creator.
When the New York Times put their blogs behind a flexible paywall in 2010, Kachingle rose to the occasion and allowed the readers to “kachingle” the New York Times blogs, in other words transferring a little bit of money to the writers behind the blogs every time they visited the site. The New York Times was not amused and sued Kachingle for using their trademarks—which in the eyes of most commentators was a reaction to new forms of financing typical of a news monolith.
Flattr, another social payment provider, has deep connections with the Creative Commons ecosphere. The website Creative Commons employs a Flattr-button to earn micropaymentsFootnote 27 and many bloggers are putting their content both under a CC license and a Flattr-button. However, there is also one mishap present: Creative Commons are typically shared under a Non-Commercial Clause, which would prohibit the use of Flattr on any blog licensing content into the public domain.Footnote 28
How can social payments be applied to science? Already Scienceblogs are using the social payment system—not necessarily for monetary gains but also for sharing content, engaging in conversation with readers, and measuring relevanceFootnote 29:
“It is easy to find out how many people access a certain Internet site—but those numbers can be deceiving. Knowing that X number of people have clicked on my article on Y is no doubt a good start. But I have no real insight on how many had a genuine interest in precisely this article and have read my article and appreciated it and how many only found my site after a Google search and left after 5 s. There may be tools allowing me to find answers to these questions, but they will most likely require a lot of work and analysis. But if I have a Flattr-button under each of my articles, I can assume that only people who really appreciated reading them will click on it—after all, this click costs them real money.” says Florian Freistetter, author of a blog on Astronomy.
The real potential of social payments lies in combination with Open Access journals, archives, and publications. Imagine, for instance, databases of publicly available data which allow the users of content to flattr or kachingle the site whenever they visit it? This would allow the making of money from scientific content beyond the traditional licensing systems of universities and libraries. Imagine if a university has a Flattr account filled with 100,000 Euros per year. Every time a university member accesses a scientific journal, the 100,000 Euro is divided among the clicks. This could generate a demand-based but fully transparent way of funding science.
Social payments could also be integrated into direct funding: For instance, through scientists receiving a certain amount of public money or money from funding institutions which cannot be used for their own projects but must be donated to other projects in their discipline. Funds as yet unassigned would remain in a payment pool until the end of the year and then be divided up equally among all projects.
There seems to be some evidenceFootnote 30 showing that distributions of social payments follow roughly the sharing and distribution behavior of content. In other words, content which is often liked, shared, and tweeted is more likely to receive funds through Flattr.
Social payments are thus likely to generate an uneven distribution of science funding—controversial, popular articles and data might generate more income than scientific publications in smaller fields.
Groundbreaking research might profit from such a distribution mechanism, especially if a new idea applies to a variety of disciplines. The established citation networks of scholars and the Matthew Effect mentioned above might even be stabilized.
Social payments in combination with measuring social media impact could provide an innovative means of measuring relevance in science. Such indices would not replace traditional impact scores, such as appearances in journals, invitations to congresses, and third-party funding, but would allow assessment of the influence of scientific publications within the public sphere.
Virtual Currencies in Science
All of the tools described above relate in one way or another to real cash-flows in the overall economy. However, these mechanisms might also work with virtual currencies which may be linked to existing currencies, but not in a 1-to-1-relationship.
In Flattr, it is customary to be able to use the earned income within the system to Flattr new content, without having to withdraw cash. The Flattr ecosystem generates its own value of worth. Similarly, on crowdfunding sites such as SellabandFootnote 31 or Sonicangel,Footnote 32 fans can use some of the rewards they receive to fund new artists. The money stays inside the ecosystem of the platform. Virtual currencies are used often in games, whereby gamers can turn real money into virtual money such as Linden Dollars on Second Life or Farmdollars on Farmville; the virtual money buys goods and services inside the game, both from other players and the game provider, and the earned income can be withdrawn at any time. It might be conceivable that a scientific community creates its own virtual currency. The currency could be used to trade and evaluate access to data, publications, or other scientific resources. Let us imagine for instance that a scientist receives a certain amount of ‘Aristotle-Dollars’ for every publication in the public domain. Based on the amount of ‘Aristotle-Dollars’ which they earn, they receive earlier access to public data.