Why I Won’t Contribute to Your Academic Kickstarter

Happy New Year! Another year, another determination to make my online writing more consistent (though I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you).

In this spirit of the new year and on the heels of the season of giving, I write to offer some preliminary thoughts for 2015. What follows may come off as ungenerous and I certainly don’t mean it to be, though admittedly it’s vulnerable to that criticism. This is an idea that’s been nagging at me for a while and though it strains the limits of my expertise, I feel compelled to write nonetheless.

My new year’s (perhaps ungenerous) statement is this: I will not be making a contribution to your academic kickstarter, indiegogo, or other online crowd-sourced fundraising campaign. My lack of giving is not a commentary on your project’s worthiness, but rather stems from a reaction to what I see as a rather dangerous shift in academic support from institutions to individuals that perpetuates and exacerbates the worst aspects of a neo-liberal economy in academia.

Let me explain.

I’ve been a supporter on Kickstarter for a while, mostly making very small donations to technology prototype projects. Sometimes I got something back (t-shirt, say, or one of the first prototypes of some gadget). Sometimes I didn’t get anything; I just wanted to support a particular project or a cause. Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen these requests include not only technology prototypes but also fundraising for various social causes, and most recently requests for artistic and academic support. It’s possible that these kinds of campaigns have been there all along, but I’ve only become aware of them in the last year or so. These requests are all for very worthy causes, ones that I absolutely support. But, the requests for financial contributions from my fellow academics have given me pause.

In particular, requests for support of book projects make me uncomfortable. These academic requests for crowd-sourced funding (often directed primarily to others in the same field) seem to be for the sorts of things that used to be covered by institutions: permissions fees, costs of reprinting images, etc. These costs used to be paid for either by presses (and sometimes still are) or by an author’s university through subvention funds (and sometimes still are). Of course, in times of shrinking budgets many presses and universities have shifted more of these kinds of costs to authors. In turn, some of these authors are now turning to the “crowd” for funding support.

On the face of it, it seems like a good idea. A book receives support for images that might otherwise be too expensive but that improve the quality and clarity of the published book. In the case of my field–theatre and performance studies–such images may be essential to understand the author’s argument and further serve to expose readers to performances and artists they might not otherwise see. At the same time, a community–intellectual, social, and artistic–gets to support a worthy project and help create a better book. What could be wrong with that?

For me, the crowdfunding model in academic publishing raises three particular concerns: 1) the shifting of support from institutions to individuals in academic publishing; 2) requests directed primarily to a relatively limited community; 3) the implications for how this might affect future publications and by extension tenure and promotion decisions.

My primary concern is that the practice of crowd-sourcing publication expenses relieves institutions of their responsibility to support scholars and authors, even when these institutions benefit from scholarly publication. There’s already been quite a bit written about the significant amount of money made in certain areas of academic STEM publishing and this move threatens to extend this into the arts and humanities. If authors demonstrate the capacity to raise funds outside both the publishing presses and their universities, then neither institution has an incentive to support faculty publication costs. After all, crowd-sourcing allows a budget-crunched press to sell a book with attractive images but without having to pay for these images directly. A university can include a faculty member’s work in their annual research accounting, but without need to provide the same level of material support as in the past. If individual authors become responsible to provide these things and both presses and universities benefit without investment, where is the incentive to continue support for faculty authors?

Then there’s the question of who is the “crowd” doing the funding. There’s an interesting parallel in this situation to one I’ve experienced in my racing and training communities. As a member of a couple of running and triathlon groups, I’ve been a part of different fundraising activities done conjunction with different races or other endurance events. I’ve both raised money and contributed to the fund-raising efforts of other athletes. Very quickly, it becomes apparent that this method of activitiy-specific fundraising engages a relatively limited and perhaps even closed community. I support your race, you support my race. Perhaps we do this a few times back and forth and then… What happens next? Once you’ve hit up everyone in your particular group (perhaps more than once), the fundraising options narrow and a certain donation fatigue sets in. I realized that I could make a more substantial charitable contribution by simply donating a larger sum directly rather than going back and forth with various friends who were all doing the same thing in smaller amounts. I’m confident there’s an economic model (perhaps several) that demonstrates this, but elsewhere Jami Attenberg has called it, “Kickstarter fatigue.”

Academic crowd-funding seems like a potentially similar situation. How many such campaigns can any particular field and its limited sphere support? One book? Five? Ten? More? If I donate to your book, will you donate to mine? How many book projects should I support before I ask for money, and what happens when you get multiple requests simultaneously? Do you pick the worthiest project(s) or avoid them all?

This question of worthiness leads to my third concern, perhaps the most troubling. Let’s say that this model becomes a success and a widely embraced way to support the extra expenses for a given book project. Let’s also say (hypothetically) that there’s not yet market saturation or donation fatigue in the scholarly giving community. Everyone is happily donating to each other’s projects and making similar requests in exchange. How might this affect reviews of faculty productivity?

One possibility is that the ability to raise funding for a book project becomes another measure of the book’s (and thus the author’s) value to the discipline. Current metrics include citations, selectivity of the publishing house, and reviews, so why couldn’t the ability to crowd-source a project be considered a factor of its value? In the marketplace of ideas, surely the one that receives significant advanced funding has more to offer than another that cannot raise the necessary funds for subvention. Will we record not only print runs and citations, but also donations among a publication’s evaluation (i.e, judging a book not only by its cover, but also its color images)? In our current assessment-driven culture (REF, anyone?), this doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Resources for publications have never been equal across academia. Some schools have more money to support their faculty publications than others. However, these financial discrepancies are at least somewhat visible. A well-endowed private university for instance is more likely to have and to be seen as having greater resources than its public counterpart. In this situation it is the appearance of equality and democracy in the crowd-sourcing model that seems especially pernicious. Crowd-sourcing seems to be a great equalizer in which all projects can compete equally for support.

However, if resources in the field are limited (and they necessarily are), then this model cannot possible serve all potential projects according to their intellectual worth. Indeed, it would seem to privilege the early adopters who tap into the available but limited resources first. Early success is thus doubly worrisome as it has the potential to reconfigure expectations for future publishing while simultaneously draining the available resources for future projects.

In her book, Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism, Jen Harvie works through the question of crowd-sourced funding in the arts. Although acknowledging the potential dangers–erosion of existing arts support, privatization of the arts, and pressure to secure private support, among others–Harvie ultimately concludes that the “shift to diversified networks of arts support” is beneficial. At its best, she writes, “it can help forge resilient, inventive new models of networked artistic, economic and social support that can at least temporarily take up the baton of social welfare and help us envision better futures” (126). I’d like to believe this is true, both in the arts and academia, and to be fair, Harvie builds a compelling argument in several case studies. (I highly recommend the book.) But, the key word here is “temporarily.” I’m not convinced that once temporary modes of support are established that they will stay that way. I’m afraid that if crowd-funding a book’s “extras” (images, reprint permissions, etc.) becomes a successful model, then this will alter expectations for future publishing and further erode what limited support currently exists.

That’s why I won’t be supporting your academic crowd-funding campaign. I’m sorry about this. I really am. I’m sure the project is great and I look forward to buying a copy for myself and my university library. I will post the link on my Facebook page and perhaps write a favorable review in an academic journal. I will vigorously recommend that everyone buy your wonderful book and I will assign it in my classes. But given my concerns, I can’t make a financial contribution to its publication.

I feel bad to start the new year with a negative resolution, so here’s the upside: I promise not send you a request for donation.