Hips 4 Hipsters, Research My World 2014. 'Led by seasoned campaigner Dr Mel Thomson, Hips 4 Hipsters aims to develop and test new treatments for superbug bacterial implant infections.'
This post is brought to you by Creative Communities, RMIT's Web Policy Awareness Campaign. The campaign promotes RMIT's Web Transformation Program via the lens of the University's new web policy suite. It also explores the game-changing developments taking place in the wider digital arena – from within and without higher education – and seeks to place these within the context of RMIT's web presence.
In 2013, Deakin University ventured into the world of crowdfunding. On Pozible, the Australian version of the highly popular Kickstarter platform, Deakin launched Research My World, an initiative to crowdfund eight research projects requiring small to medium amounts of funding.
The results were outstanding. In the initial campaign, six of the eight projects were not only fully funded but exceeded their targets. A second round in 2013 saw a further two out of three projects funded. In 2014, a third campaign was launched: five projects, all fully funded.
In an inherently conservative research environment, Research My World is commendable. It taps into the power of online networks to harness public interest and enhance the relevance of academic institutions. That's no small feat in a time when, as we were reminded at the recent RMIT Web Conference, universities are confronted with all sorts of predictions, gloomy or otherwise, about their future in the digital age.
Crowdfunding is the practice of raising funding for any type of project by asking for multiple smaller donations from the public (urban regeneration schemes and political campaigns have been successfully crowdfunded). Crowdfunding has demonstrated its value by raising awareness for projects that have not been championed by traditional avenues (for example, films rejected by studios have found support via crowdfunding).
The concept attracts good and bad press. Adherents say it taps directly into financial and emotional support from a public wearied by corporate spin, while detractors claim it's often a platform for scam or joke projects (like the campaign to make a batch of potato salad, which raised $8000), and that because of this, even genuine projects risk prejudice by association.
There was probably an element of risk with Deakin's initiative, the first in Australia. However, the results speak for themselves, and these are not only financial. Research My World led to what the project leaders call 'digital capability': the new-found confidence of researchers to use online and social networks to promote and improve academic work.
Professor Deb Verhoeven has led the project through its two-year development period. She is Professor and Chair of Media and Communication at Deakin University, and previously held the role of Director of the AFI Research Collection at RMIT.
I spoke to Professor Verhoeven about Research My World and its risks, benefits and possible future outcomes for all universities.
Interview by Simon Sellars, Senior Digital Analyst, Web Services and Information Policy, RMIT University.
Were you surprised at the overwhelming success Research My World has achieved?
To be surprised would imply that we had expectations! We went into the first round of funding with the view that we were embarking on an experiment. Without really discussing it openly, I think we all believed that around a 60% success rate would indicate a successful experiment and we were thrilled that we exceeded this. The most recent round of Research My World achieved a 100% success rate, so I hope this indicates we've improved our techniques with experience.
At the institutional level, how supportive was Deakin of the campaign?
Across the board at an institutional level, Deakin was fully supportive and Research My World could not have succeeded without this all-of-university effort. Some individuals were sceptical, which is to be expected. I hope we’ve been able to bring them round.
It's been suggested the concept of crowdfunding has a 'trust problem', and that many people see it as a platform for scammers, 'quackery' and half-baked ideas. Did you have to overcome such credibility issues when pitching the idea to stakeholders, researchers or backers?
I’d like to see the evidence base for those assertions. As I mentioned earlier, there were, and I suspect always will be, doubters. It's important to remember that this is a nascent field. It is very dynamic and as it changes, so, too, will public perception.
I don’t think ‘trust’ was a critical issue for us. We deliberately focussed campaigns on the researchers, each of whom was passionate and committed, often for an extended part of their career, to solving a particular problem. I believe they earned the public’s trust, and hence their success.
It’s also been suggested that crowdfunding is unlikely to fund 100% of an academic research project. Is Research My World, then, a game changer?
Crowdfunding itself is a game changer but not because it will fully fund projects, which is possible, but won’t be typical of crowdfunded research. It's a gamechanger because it repositions the relationship between universities and their publics. This is about the emergence and development of collaborative economies and research practices, and not just about switching one source of funding for another.
Kenya Healthy Minds, Research My World 2014.
'Led by Elijah Marangu, this project aims to identify gaps in mental health care in Kenya. The results will be used to inform capacity building strategies to improve mental health care in Kenya, in primary health care settings.'
How important was marketing strategy to the campaign? Did you work closely with Deakin's marketing and communications department to promote Research My World?
We did work with Deakin marketing as well as Deakin’s PR staff and Deakin Research’s media unit. But the brunt of communication effort was left with the researcher’s themselves.
You've presented some interesting statistics around this, which suggests social media was crucial to the researchers' promotional efforts. For example, across 45 days, the campaign generated over 200 stories in print, TV and online media. This included more than 3000 tweets.
While that indicates traditional media is not quite dead and an integrated approach to promotion is needed, it also points to the power of social networks. How receptive, initially, were the researchers to working with such tools?
Most had limited exposure to social media, but their responses during the campaign differed wildly. Some were in complete denial – a couple of projects didn't engage at all in social media and didn’t meet their targets. Others were completely immersed in a variety of social media that has continued beyond the life of the campaign.
There were interesting disciplinary preferences. Scientists, for example, were especially uncomfortable mixing their private and professional social media profiles.
The pilot project report for Research My World talks about building 'digital capacity', with researchers noting 'their newfound social media skills as an intangible benefit from their involvement'. I've been designing and implementing social media training for RMIT staff, and I've found the concept of 'digital capacity' to be a very useful way into that.
I like to think of it as 'social media training by stealth'. One of the key outcomes for researchers was their expanded online profile and the belief that this had opened professional opportunities for them. This is evident in their feedback to us:
'I’m now more skilled (but with more room to grow) in the use of social media. I’ve also become more outward looking – more aware of who’s doing what beyond the confines of Deakin and my world of research.'
'I was not a tweeter previously and now am. I have also set up a Facebook site and put more effort into engaging through Research Gate. I have set up a Twitter widget on my unit for Trimester 2. I think this has catalysed me to take the first – the biggest and the hardest – step in becoming digitally literate, specifically around my own profile. This is excellent.'
'I have made important professional relationships entirely on Twitter that will stand me in good stead to form partnerships for ‘proper’ research grants from the NHMRC/ARC, particularly from the Indigenous Health Care community.'
Quotes from researchers cited in the Research My World pilot project report.
What challenges should universities be aware of before exploring crowdfunding?
The key challenge is to ensure there is high-level ownership of the initiative. Without this birds-eye perspective, it's difficult to coordinate all the required aspects of university operations so they can work collaboratively towards a successful campaign.
It worked for Deakin that we also had an 'academic champion' who could represent the project to researchers, as well as across a range of administrative functions.
Retake Melbourne, Research My World 2013.
Led by James McArdle, this project aims to crowdfund 'an innovative app which lets you travel through time using iconic photographs of Melbourne'.
This interview was brought to you by Creative Communities, RMIT's Web Policy Awareness Campaign. This week, the spotlight is on the University's Social Media Policy.
Check out RMIT's Social media for research, teaching and collaboration instruction and Social media for campaigns instruction for more tips on using social networks to promote campaigns and academic research.
> Research My World: 2013 campaign
> Research My World: 2014 campaign
> Research My World: Crowdfunding Research Pilot Project Evaluation (PDF; Deb Verhoeven, Stuart Palmer, Joyce Seitzinger, Melanie Randall)
> Checklists for crowdfunding research (Slideshare; Deb Verhoeven):
> 'Short on grant money? Five tips for crowdfunding success' (Deb Verhoeven and Lee Astheimer; The Conversation, 19 September 2013)
> 'Social media activities to help crowdfunded research #deakin #pozible' (Joyce Seitzinger)