Image via Tumblr, gifs-for-the-masses

How I Crowd-Funded My PhD Project

I’m raising research funds on Experiment.com, to understand how science bloggers choose what to write about. Today, I reached my funding goal! Check out the project here — I could still use your help!

One of the hardest things about doing academic research, is doing quality research without quality research funds. As many scientists out there will know, government funds for research are getting harder and harder to come by. And that’s for the “hard” sciences.

Once upon a time, I was a biological engineering PhD student. My professor had essentially only one or two routes for funding our research (which when you are talking about confocal microscopes and DNA detection equipment, gets EXPENSIVE): NSF (National Science Foundation) or NIH (National Institutes of Health) grant funding. We are talking multi-million dollar grants. And if the grants didn’t come through — no research.

But in a rather serendipitous turn of events, I today find myself in a PhD program studying the science of science communication. In particular, the science of science blogging — who science bloggers are, what they do, how they decide what to write about, what their routines and values are, what their impact is in the larger science news ecosystem, etc. (You can get glimpses into my research on Twitter using the hashtag #MySciBlog).

Now who in the world funds mass communication and media research? Science communicators might actually be lucky — they have some opportunities to apply for grant funding from NSF in the area of communicating research to the public and other “hard” science related social science research. Also, having a science communication component to “hard” science grant proposals to the NSF is a big plus — a reason for other scientists to collaborate with science communication scholars! I just recently applied for an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement grant in the area of science, technology and society. But let’s be realistic — that’s got a one in a million shot at being funded, I’m guessing. Environmental communication researchers also have options — in Louisiana, many scientists are getting grant funding from BP to study the effects of the oil spill and even how to better communicate environmental issues to coastal residents.

Other mass communication and media researchers have to compete for selective private and non-profit funding, often from media-related organizations like the Knight Foundation. Much of this funding, it would seem, goes to researchers looking at the psychological effects of new media, and other more “new age” media research. But funding for mass communication and media research is generally small and far between, unless you are working for a media organization that wants to know something about the effectiveness of its materials. A relatively small number of media researchers are, like me, are studying (or getting money to study) the communicators themselves, their routines, practices and production of messages. Which is a shame, because when you are studying communicators, it really helps to have funds sometimes just to reward these communicators for the time they sit and talk to you! (OR money to travel to where these communicators are in the world, for participant observation. OR money to buy software to analyze the rich and complex data that results.)

Long story short, when I knew it would be REALLY nice to have money to incentivize my survey of science bloggers (because you can get a much better survey response and completion rate, especially with long surveys, if you offer a financial incentive), I thought it would be a good idea to go for an alternative funding model.

So I checked out Experiment.com.

I’m trying to remember now how I first found out about Experiment.com. I’ve run Indiegogo campaigns for writing projects in the past, but never tried crowd-funding for scientific research. Experiment.com is a gorgeous platform, and it makes setting up a new project a breeze. Plus, you can’t publish your project without input from the guys running the site, which is pretty cool — they give you advice on tweaks you can make to help your crowd-funding project be successful.

It took about a week for me to set up my project page and get input from the guys at Experiment.com. It worked out well that for this research, the project description and rationale were fairly straightforward. I want to interview and survey a large and diverse population of science bloggers, because few people have done that before. And because science blogging is MAD cool.

And then, just that simply, they launched my project! I set the project to run for 20 days, because honestly, 30 days felt too long to wait. In my experience, with Indiegogo campaigns, people donate the most within the first few days, and it typically drops off drastically after that. Plus, I wanted to pilot my survey at a science blogging meeting I’m going to in late November, so I wanted to set the funding deadline for before then.

A fun Experiment.com lab note I wrote for Halloween, showing how many bloggers at Scientific American featured a Halloween-themed blog post the week of October 31st. https://experiment.com/u/N9rJuQ

I set a moderate but useful goal of $1,000 for my project. That would allow me to reward the first 200 bloggers to take my survey $5 each.

So the project launched, then what? Then, the real work comes.

I’m not sure how I could have been successful in raising research funds for this project if it hadn’t been for my presence on Twitter and other social media outlets. And not just my presence, but how embedded I am in the science blogging community that this project targets. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this and other crowd-funding campaigns, it’s this: your friends, colleagues and the people that know, trust and respect you, are the ones who are going to contribute. To those people, who follow my work on a daily basis on Twitter and on my blog, who are generous with their time and are passionate about science communication, I owe every bit of my success with this project.

Of course, I also did legwork. I joined science communication groups on Facebook to share my project. I e-mailed it to several science writing list-servs. I blogged about it, and shared those blogs to Reddit, to Google+, to StumbleUpon, to LinkedIn. I personally e-mailed people I thought would be interested — always asking for input on my research and my survey, never directly for donations. I tweeted it. And tweeted it. And tweeted it. But I was careful to never come across as frustrated, overly eager or “spoiled” in expecting anyone to donate. Actually, I have to admit that some part of me is almost surprised that anyone donated — that anyone cared enough, or trusted in my research abilities enough, to give me money to do this awesome research!

Oh yeah, I also made this silly video to promote my project. I’d never made a YouTube video before (as I wince at my voice!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6hipp3vngw

Truthfully, part of “promoting” a project like this gets almost painful at a point. I really don’t like using social media just to broadcast or ASK for things. I started to feel like I was annoying people by tweeting about this project so much. But I’m trying to give back in the form of valuable data. I’m writing lab notes (another cool tool at Experiment.com) in order to share some of my preliminary data and to provide scholarly reading for others interested in the study of science blogging. I’m tweeting tiny excerpts of my research interviews with science bloggers using the hashtag #MySciBlog, so that others can get a taste of what my research outcomes are before I pull them all together. It’s about showing the process of science — people want and need that, and they should have access to it.

Part of doing a crowd-funding project like this is GIVING BACK. What are people getting for helping you? I knew I HAD to make this project open access, because I feel very strongly that if I’m going to ask science bloggers for their time in interviews and surveys, they should have access to the scientific results of my research. That’s another issue — too few academic scientists understand that many science bloggers DON’T have access to the peer-reviewed research papers that they are being counted on to translate for everybody else.

So those were my strategies. Promote. Share. Give Back. And be a crazy social media-ite.

Thoughts? Please share! And do please share my Experiment.com project if you feel so inclined — 11 days left to reach new goals!

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.