After Richard Carrier finished his PhD in ancient history at Columbia University in 2008, he decided against attempting to find an academic post.
“The US economy had just collapsed, and humanities departments had put a freeze on hires,” he explains. “I had also soured on the life of a professor by then, having seen it from the inside.”
Instead, he decided to become an independent historian and philosopher, and has since written books and articles on everything from the origins of Christianity to science education in the early Roman Empire.
If this sounds attractive to young scholars who love their subject but are weary of the punishing hours, brutal competition for jobs and sometimes numbing bureaucracy of life inside universities, there is of course one big problem – how do you fund a life as an independent scholar?
At the end of last year, Carrier joined Patreon, a site where “patrons” can pledge small amounts of money – usually just a few dollars per month or per piece of content – to support “creators” such as bands, artists and others they like.
So far, he has attracted 54 patrons, who collectively pledge to give him $128 (£87) per blog post. This gives him an income of “a few hundred dollars a month at best”; not much, but a useful supplement to his other work as a freelance lecturer. “Patreon is a great resource for fans and hobbyists and other interests to finance the production of content that wouldn’t exist otherwise,” he says.
Carrier is just one of a number of researchers turning towards internet crowdfunding to support their work. Some platforms are already reasonably well established: the Experiment site has already funded 20 studies that resulted in peer-reviewed journal articles. One project sequenced the genome of celebrity internet cat Lil Bub, who has a number of genetic disorders.
But Experiment projects tend to be in the physical sciences and run by researchers who already have academic posts. Patreon and the highly successful Kickstarter platform, on the other hand, are supporting independent scholars in other areas, including some rather unusual projects and maverick thinkers who reject the academy entirely.
One such researcher is the US-based Jeriah Bowser, who writes on his Patreon profile that he is a “self-educated, working-class, organic intellectual who is engaging in the world of ideas not as an academic professional, but as an irreverent dissident”, whose main interest is “understanding and exploring the tension between wildness and civilization”.
He audits university classes, writes books and essays, and corresponds with academics, adding that he is keen to offend “the sensibilities of withered old men”. So far, he has two patrons, who provide an income of $102 a month.
Another Patreon creator, Patrick Julius, is seeking support to blog about “cognitive economics”, which “seeks to reunite economics with other fields of science”.
He has a master’s degree in economics, but laments on his profile that “without being tied to a university, it's very hard to make money doing research and education. But given the abysmal state of the academic job market, it’s also very hard to find a job tied to a university.”
So far, five patrons are backing his work, in total contributing $54 a month.
Full of possibility
Unlike Patreon, Kickstarter tends to crowdfund specific projects, rather than the ongoing work of people or groups (although earlier this year it acquired a Patreon-like platform for musicians called Drip).
It has led to some extraordinary fundraising success stories: Kickstarter launched the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, which started off in 2012 asking for $250,000. The target was smashed, and the company was eventually sold to Facebook for $2 billion.
The academic projects on Kickstarter seem unlikely to end in multibillion-dollar buyouts any time soon, but the platform has made possible a number of niche projects that otherwise may never have come to fruition.
Matt Coombes is a UK-based web developer and, it is probably fair to say, something of a fan of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. He recently completed a part-time linguistics master’s degree at De Montfort University during which he analysed Elvish in Tolkien’s books, and is now preparing to do a PhD about invented languages in modern media.
Funding from 50 backers on Kickstarter allowed him to raise nearly £1,400 to turn his academic work into a published book: The Elvish Writing Systems of JRR Tolkien, which was dispatched to backers in May.
“I didn’t even know about it [Kickstarter] until a colleague mentioned it,” he said. “I didn’t have any idea whether it was going to work”.
But after promoting the project on social media, Coombes was “shocked” by the amount of people who lined up to offer money. Most of this went on publishing expenses, but some did cover Coombes’ costs during the end of the project when he had to cut back on his other paid work.
Whether a project without such cult appeal would attract funders is another question. “If it didn’t carry Tolkien’s name…I think it would be pushing it,” says Coombes, who adds that many of the backers were “avid collectors of anything that has his name on”.
Also unclear is whether Kickstarter backers would be willing to fund a much longer and more expensive research project – such as a PhD – rather than just the publication of a book.
Coombes says that he has “often” thought about whether he could raise money for his own doctorate via the platform, but he outlines a number of problems: universities might not take Kickstarter pledges as proof of funds; and eager funders might put intolerable pressure on an academic to finish their PhD in an unrealistic time frame.
Ivan Gololobov, a Russia expert at the University of Warwick, has also had success on Kickstarter. He managed to raise more than £3,000 for a Russian translation of the 1985 work of political theory Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, primarily for academic use in the Russian-speaking world.
“Our project was pretty mad and rather ‘hopeless’, and we still made it,” he says. It would have been impossible without Kickstarter, he explains, as he could not find support for translation in the UK, while in Russia anything related to “Left thought” is still “highly unpopular”.
Still, encouraging backers was far from straightforward. “It was six weeks of nearly full-time work which involved writing hundreds of emails and Facebook messages, contacting numerous groups in social networks interested in this field,” he explains.
For now, sites such as Patreon and Kickstarter are providing only minuscule amounts of funding compared with university research budgets. But outside the boundaries of institutions, they are helping the unorthodox to see the light of day.