Friday, June 28, 2013

Crowd-funding Indological (and/or) Philosophical projects?

A few months ago, two valiant scholars I know (Mark Singleton and James Mallinson) proposed a project for crowdfunding on They got the 50k dollars they applied for (in fact, they received even more than that) and are now happily funded for 1 or 2 years. I did participate to the crowd-funding and I do not regret it. A few days ago, another colleague (Michael Slouber) applied for crowd-funding, again on (his project is here). This time the amount of money he needs is much less and he is quite frank in explaining that he needs a few more months to complete his book, otherwise he will not be able to land in a TT job. I hesitated a bit, but then decided to help him (after all, I have now a job, but have been unemployed in the past, and will probably be unemployed again in the future). (Update: In fact, I had decided to support the project, but then failed to do it as it was too late, sorry Michael, in case you are reading.)

HOWEVER, I am not sure whether this is the right path, especially insofar as it might be an escape from the responsibility of convincing your peers within the Academia of the importance of your project (I am thinking especially of projects which may sound appealing but are not well-grounded). Apart from the anti-nihilist argument raised here by Eric Schliesser (i.e., if you are a nihilist, you have far less chances to be funded than an applied ethicist, no matter who is a better scholar), here are some thoughts by Steven Lindquist (Associate Professor in the US), expressed in a the Indology mailing list —which is visible to the public— (emphasis added by me):

Not only does crowdsourcing of academic work create its own "popularity" system for producing scholarship (traditional grant routes do this as well in supporting particular academic trends, but the key difference in my mind is that there is a formal, learned vetting system, even if it is not ideal). My larger concern relates to the privatization of funding for research, especially for individuals and for specialized works. Crowdsourcing of academic work gives an all-too-easy excuse for grant-giving and governmental bodies to disconnect from the funding of individual scholarship altogether. It does the same for the publishing industry, where they can require or increase already-required subventions. Arguably, these groups are already doing this in different fashions, especially under current austerity measures and the economic debacle many countries are in, but this sort of crowdsourcing could make their argument radically easy if it were to become at all popular in academic circles. Who can't envision members of government, when considering funding priorities, stepping back altogether and saying, "If it has any public appeal, the public will fund it" and use crowdsourcing as a justification to cut funding completely? Or a publisher doing the same in requiring a subvention? Crowdsourcing scholarship would certainly be appealing to certain university higher admin types who could easily justify eliminating internal funding altogether—especially for the humanities, where "practical value" and larger fund-raising potential are hard arguments to make.
While I am not a fan of slippery-slope type arguments, I wonder if we are hurting ourselves in the long run if we circumvent the standard grant vetting based on an academic market for a different sort of market-driven popularity. Perhaps certain types of work are more appropriate for crowdsourcing, I don't know. And, of course, I admit there is still the vetting that takes place with the publisher, though that industry is in flux. But are we going to see many more of these sorts of appeals? A future onslaught across list serves? Or to think it out further: are people going to increasingly turn to colleagues to fund any project they don't get a grant for or don't self-finance? How about requests to fund unfunded dissertation projects? Or to fund [insert name here]?
 What do you think? I am especially worried at the idea that one starts avoiding tough research and recurring instead to appealing videos to get funded. On the other hand, I myself have often repeated that we have to become responsible for the results we want to be achieved, and cannot any longer count on state-funding.

Thus, it seems that the dilemma, in my case at least, is not about crowd-funding or not, but rather about which projects should one crowd-fund. For instance, I am ready to finance one's project about actions aiming at saving small seals in northern Canada from being killed because of their furs, a project for which the Canadian government will surely not give any money (given that it probably earns out of the fur industry). By contrast, I am not ready to finance one's vacations on the Canarian Islands. More in general: I am ready to finance what the governments do not deem right to finance (for whatever reason) but is intrinsically altruistic and valuable, whereas I am not ready to finance projects which mainly regard one's own interests. If you need a break because you are close to a burn-out, I see your problem, but will not finance you (unless you are a close relative of friend).

Did you ever participate in a crowd-funding? Why (not)?

For a post in favour of crowd-funding, see here. On different platforms, don't miss this post (and its comments) and this article (I got the link through one of the commentators to the previous post).
(small note: I am writing this post on Tuesday the 22nd of May, but I will only post it on June the 28th, that is, after the crowd-funding of Michael Slouber is completed, since I want to avoid even the very remote possibility that one should not fund Michael's project after having read my post).


Jayarava said...

Clearly this is only going to work for projects that the "crowd" will understand and appreciate. Which is just the sort of thing an academic funding body will not fund.

I think this is telling from Slouber: "The Kickstarter project will help me to move beyond the catch-22 of needing a book to land a tenure-track job, but needing the income of a steady job to have the time to devote to research."

The times are changing. Academic funding is highly competitive and vastly smaller than what is needed for everyone who is capable and has a worthy project to be able to proceed.

By the same token the 5 books I've published (including a memoir by my mother) were never going to find a commercial publisher (and not for want of trying). It was self publish or nothing.

So I think this is the new model - self-publishing, crowd-funding, blogging etc. 100 years ago most research was carried out by aristocrats who could afford the expense of gaining a PhD and doing research. Then governments took over and provided funds via various channels. Now governments are withdrawing from funding certain kinds of research (our kind) and thus we need to make alternative arrangements.

In terms of convincing your peers - well one of the examples you give is a development of a PhD thesis which presumably convinced many people. The other guys say "But this is not an academic work as such: it's a labor of love" and get the "former CEO and President of Yoga Journal" to endorse their work. So this is not an academic project - it uses the skills and resources of scholarship to produce something more accessible. I'm totally into that and happy they got their funding.

I'll certainly be looking into crowd funding. It might be the only way I can afford to get into the academy.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Jayarava,
yours sounds like a very interesting comment, but I am not sure I understand it correctly. You say that crowd-funding only applies to non-academic crowd-appealing projects and that the Yoga one is one among then. However, I do not understand whether you think that Slouber's project belongs to this group or not. In fact, I think it does *not*. Slouber's work is a great work, but not one which is meant for a large public. It deals with manuscript variants, philology and history and as you mention, is part of his own life-plan. What is your view about crowd-funding in such cases?

Licenza Creative Commons
Quest' opera è distribuita con licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 2.5 Italia.