Crowdfunding and archaeological research: should we do it?


A few months ago, I wrote about the new opportunities to be had through crowdfunding archaeological research. It seemed like a solid approach to cover some of the costs of conducting an archaeology or historic preservation project, especially if the crowdfunded project paid dividends to the local economy and community. I mean, if you’re going to do a project that benefits a local community and, possibly, your career, what’s wrong with collecting $5’s and $10’s from your friends, family, and locals in order to help get the job done? Or, if you want to do cool archaeology at sites you really want to dig like the DigVentures crew, what’s wrong with getting other people to fund that dream? (NOTE: I have since learned that DigVentures isn’t as transparent as I thought. For instance, they do not seem to keep track of how many of their customers are already archaeologists).

(Update 4/13/2015– I was contacted by the DigVentures team and informed that they do keep track of the occupation of their participants. They just don’t make that available. Sorry for the inaccuracy.)

It was Walt Disney who said, “We don’t make movies to make money. We make money to make more movies.” That axiom was mostly true when Disney was running the company. Things went to crap after his death (see Cinderella III: A Twist in Time. Actually….don’t see that movie.) Don’t we archaeologists make/harvest money in order to do more archaeology projects?

I felt crowdfunding archaeology had great potential until I read a blog post on “Property of an Anonymous Swiss Collector” titled “Don’t try crowd-funding a PhD; OR, Your colleagues don’t like it when you ask them for money” (8/8/2013). The post was written by an esteemed archaeologist at the University of Glasgow named Dr. Donna Yates. Her post is very straightforward and somewhat flew in the face of my earlier post lauding crowdfunded archaeological projects. I wanted to make sure I got the jest of her post, so I emailed a draft of this post to Dr. Yates and she was gracious to send me an excellent email response that supported her position (Thanks Dr. Yates). You can follow the crowdfunding PhD debate on Twitter (https://twitter.com/DrDonnaYates/status/365555882546839552).

This post makes several valid points about crowdfunding archaeology PhD projects:

1. Many college profs don’t have $100 to spare.

2. Profs would rather give money to their students instead of others’ students.

3. Archaeologists can’t always be sure where the money comes from or that there won’t be strings attached.

4. How will you explain this to your university ethics committee?

5. It’s annoying to be asked for money.

So, are these objections valid? Is it inappropriate to ask for money in order to crowdsource archaeology projects? Of course, the real answer is: it depends. But, personally, I think its okay and I have already contributed funded archaeological projects. I plan on contributing to many more in the future.

Addressing the ‘Against” argument

I want to be extremely clear that I am not targeting Dr. Yates personally. I just want to address some of the arguments against crowdfunding archaeological PhD projects that were highlighted in her blog post because I think it can be a solid means of funding portions of the field effort. I guess didn’t realize the complications posed above, but I will do my best to offer a counter argument to them:

Rebuttal #1- Professors don’t have $100 to spare. I know we archaeologists aren’t the richest socioeconomic group. I know we usually don’t have $100 to spare so a stranger (even a starving PhD student) can finish her/his archaeology project, but we might have $40 or $20 or $5. The U.S. government appears to have millions of taxpayer dollars dedicated to that very purpose. I’ve never donated more than $20 at a time to a stranger’s cause—even if it was an archaeology or historic preservation project. More often than money, I’ve helped other folks’ projects by using my network, supplying CRM reports and research, and giving advice (sometimes unsolicited, like this blog post). Personally, I’d rather get a professional connection that will help me get data, references, cheap rates on machinery rental/operator, or a discount on GPS devices/services than a $100 bill.

I also feel like this is one of the general weaknesses of archaeological funding. Professors, PhD students, and CRM companies are overwhelmingly focused on obtaining government funding, although CRMers also seek out private contracts. There appears to be little interest in looking outside the box for other means of funding. Charging private clients for the “archaeology experience” along the lines of DigVentures and crowdfunding both have shortcomings (including the fact that untrained civilians are responsible for collecting quality data and for-profit companies have little motivation to create a timely report of their activities). But, I think these can be ameliorated with through proactive efforts (For instance, proper planning prior to launching the public outreach arm of the project, soliciting public input and involvement, maintaining a good public relations/social media campaign before, during, and after the fieldwork can ameliorate public misconceptions of our interpretations). I think we should allow ourselves to be creative in seeking funding in order to address the shortfall in available government grants and the intensity of the grant application process.

Rebuttal #2- Profs would rather give money to their students instead of others’ students. This makes perfect sense. I’d also rather take care of my own than help someone else’s student/employee/kid ect. Also, why should we make it easier for other students? Most anthropology PhD students (Dr. Yates and myself included) worked their butts off to finish their degrees–using a combination of loans, grants, and sweat equity to get through college. Another element to Dr. Yates’ post is the idea that providing financial resources to your own students furthers the prestige of the major professor/principal investigator and university/institution. Financially helping other students does not. However, I’m not entirely sure this is true.

First, funding your own students will allow them to conduct archaeological projects that generate useful data that can be used to create an article, book, dissertation, or other written archaeological interpretation. These documents are perceived as a high status item that confers much prestige to the creator. While the best and most widely circulated of these writings do bring high prestige, the return value of archaeology writing is rapidly diminishing when compared to the amount of time, money, and effort expended in order to create them. The writings created by archaeologists see limited circulation. Thousands of these documents are created each year—many more than any human being could read in that same time period. An academic article in a really restrictive journal will get fewer reads than one in an open source journal. Blog posts, podcasts, vlogs, webinars, online articles, and eBooks will reach an even wider audience (blogs and other online publications can even reach the general public when published in conjunction with a vigorous social media program and some basic search engine optimization [SEO]). If you really want to reach other archaeologists and the general public, publishing your work online and in open source journals is probably the best way to go. You will probably get more prestige if you help your work go viral than if you publish it in an obscure archaeology journal (however, you will still have to do this in order to fulfill the core tenet of the “publish or perish” paradigm).

Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome to get your work published and, while I’ve already self published two eBooks, I still strive to get articles accepted by the major journals even though my eBooks already reach a wider audience than most archaeology journals do and will bring me more money than any academic article or book published by an academic press will.

Second, if you’re looking to build fealty from grad students, helping as many of them as possible sounds like a better way of fulfilling that goal. It’s no secret that we are supposed to help our grad school advisers as much as possible in return for their support while we were in grad school. I’m not a professor, but I’d like to be one someday and it seems to be more functional to spread the knowledge and wealth as far as possible in order to build up a massive network that will help me and my projects some day. If it takes a $20 donation to a PhD’s project so they’ll hire my student or donate to my projects someday, so be it.

Third, I guess it’s not a good idea to ask archaeology professors to help crowdfund research projects. That is, unless you are a looking to successfully crowdfund a small project of your own.

Rebuttal #3. You can’t be sure where the money comes from or that there won’t be strings attached. The politics associated with archaeology exist no matter where you get your funding. Academics are limited by their universities/research organizations, their pursuit of tenure, and social convention. Going out on limb and publishing controversial work or pursuing unconventional funding sources is rarely done because profs don’t want to risk their careers. Universities don’t like controversy and, because they’re becoming more like businesses, axe researchers that don’t toe the line. Other profs probably don’t like or can’t associate with outcasts either and frequently ostracize unconventional research and methods. There is also the danger that the groups/individuals donating to your effort may have ties to illegitimate activities or political groups.

CRM companies, which I’m most familiar with, are even more constrained when it comes to what we publish. We have federal, state, and local rules that simmer most of our work down to its bare minimum. Market economics prevents us from conducting in-depth work most of the time. Also, clients don’t like companies that don’t keep their development plans secret. Most CRM clients don’t like us to mention their names on social media or even to our closest friends. Also, CRM archaeology frequently makes way for controversial development and construction projects.

Public interests have been known to influence archaeological projects (see the African Burial Ground). Sometimes this is for the better, sometimes it’s not.

Politics and archaeological project funding have long been close frenemies. This is an unavoidable fact of archaeology no matter where you work. We cannot always clear the blurred line between funding and archaeological projects.

Rebuttal #4. How will you explain this to your university ethics committee? I don’t have an answer to this one. I Googled “science crowdfunding ethics” and discovered a range of articles and blog posts discussing the ethical pitfalls of crowdfunding science projects. Many of these are applicable to the use of crowdfunding for archaeology PhD projects. I found a good blog post called “Crowd-funding Science?” on the blog “through the looking glass” (http://alicerosebell.wordpress.com/2012/07/21/crowd-funding-science/). This post addresses the fact that only “pretty” and heart-wrenching projects tend to get funded because those topics resonate most with the general public that is funding the project. There is also concern that the projects will be rushed, which is likely to diminish the final product. RateMyPi.com also had a great article “Kickstarting your Career: Crowdfunding for Scientific Research” (http://blog.ratemypi.com/kickstarting-your-career-crowdfunding-for-scientific-research/) that listed several pro and cons for crowdfunding science. One of the cited cons here was the legitimacy of crowdfunded research (which harkens to discussions on the quality of CRM archaeology work). None of the sites cited concerns with university ethics committees.

I don’t know how you will explain this to the ethics committee. I guess, I’d try and figure out if our committee is open to outside funding aside from government grants before you start creating your research design. If they are, I’d probably talk to local businesses and government agencies near your project location and try to get some deals or promises for funding before launching a full-blown crowdfunding campaign. Still, I’m not sure how your department will respond to it.

Rebuttal #5. It’s annoying to be asked for money. I know the feeling. How many of us have quickly dismissed a homeless person asking for some food only to have that lingering feeling of remorse afterward? In most cities, this happens every day.

You know what’s more annoying? Getting that “sorry, but-we-didn’t-like-your-proposal-enough-to-fund-your-research” email from a granting agency.

I understand this is part of being a grown-up researcher and it’s important to your professional development,  but it hurts more to find out that the 50–100 hours you put into writing the proposal, the three or four favors you called in to get reference letters, and the weeks of waiting to hear if you’ve gotten funding failed to get you a grant. I’d rather spend some time soliciting businesses and interested individuals for sponsorship in addition to waiting for grant money. You can make a better case for your work in person than you can in writing for a grant selection committee. Grantwriting will be an important element to my own PhD research, but I’m still not going to rule out donations from businesses. Fortunately, Dr. Yates’ blog post will deter me from soliciting and taking donations from private individuals.

Blowback from the Conventional for Unconventional Methods

I guess the main thing I’d be afraid of when starting a crowdfunding campaign is blowback from other archaeologists that don’t feel comfortable with the concept of generating project funding from the public. Universities, academic archaeologists, other graduate students, and CRM archaeologists are not used to getting project funding directly from the public. We’re used to getting money from companies in exchange for our expertise or through government grants (which, interestingly, are the people’s money in the first place). This blowback matters because we work in an extremely close-knit industry where your professional reputation and integrity can make or break your career. It is even truer for academic archaeologists who need to prove they can bring in grant money.

Nevertheless, as the post mentions, we need to get ready for a lot more of this sort of type of solicitation in the future. Like it or not, crowdfunded archaeology projects are going to become increasingly common as word spreads about current efforts. Just check out Kickstarter for some recent successfully funded archaeological projects. Most opponents of archaeology crowdfunding have arguments similar to those outlined in Chapter 4 of Chris Guilebeau’s book “The Art of Non-Conformity”. The most salient arguments against crowdfunding are firmly based in the desire to not disrupt the “business as usual” model that predominates in academic archaeology research. We don’t want to have to discover new ways to pay for our research because it will require our already overloaded minds to adopt new practices and learn new skills. Plus, crowdfunding will require us to be gregarious and appealing to the public—something archaeologists aren’t well known for.

I agree that it is bad manners to send out mass emails begging for money. I think it’s very poor taste to randomly mass email archaeology bloggers asking them to send out a 4-alarm message endorsing the crowdfunding efforts of a no-name archaeology student hasn’t taken the time to invest in a personal relationship with us. This is probably more devastating than simply asking strangers for money because bloggers have audiences that read their posts, which means they can burn your bridges even faster than the average archaeology professor.

Anyone thinking of soliciting the help of a blogger needs to do several things first. Here are five I thought of off the top of my head:

1)  get to know that individual personally,

2)  learn about their niche and audience and decide if their people are likely to help you,

3)  selflessly offer to help the blogger out BEFORE you ask for something,

4)  offer something of value to the blogger (ex. quality posts in their niche, unpaid help with a project, widespread exposure to your network),

5)  if you’ve done those things first, make sure you have something damn good to give them in exchange for their support (In this case, an offer to give them a how-to-, blow-by-blow synopsis of exactly how you crowdfunded your project, how successful it was, and what you’d do to get a better return on investment). You’re asking the blogger to risk their reputation so you can get money, so the blogger better get something valuable in exchange.

It may be controversial to crowdfund a PhD archaeology project, but we have to think about the fact that 60 years ago it was considered unethical and preposterous for a for-profit company to conduct archaeology work. Now, CRM composes the lion’s share of archaeology work in Europe and North America and is rapidly moving to conduct archaeology in the rest of the world.

Rather than worrying about whether or not it’s appropriate to crowdfund archaeology projects, we should focus on maintaining quality standards for crowdfunded projects and devising methods of dealing with private citizens that may feel the urge to crowdfund their own archaeological projects. Don’t think that’ll happen? Just tune into NatGeo, Spike TV, or the Travel Channel.

I would love to continue the conversation on this topic. If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.

 

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