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Is Crowdfunding an Answer to Academia’s Publish or Perish Culture?

The pressure to publish in academia is skewing the literature and stifling innovation. Sean MacEntee/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The pressure to publish in academia is skewing the literature and stifling innovation. Sean MacEntee/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Whether you prefer the mysterious charm of the unknown, or believe that things become more beautiful with understanding; there’s no denying that science has, and continues to, helped make the world a better place. To do that, the field has to continually evolve and improve, with scientists constantly coming up with new ideas and hypotheses, testing them in various ways and rejecting or supporting them based on robust experimental evidence.

But how can we trust that what scientists are reporting is reliable, their methodology was sound, and their interpretations were accurate and unbiased? Anyone can do an experiment and document what they found, so there needs to be a vetting process to sieve through the dodgy and pick out those that are genuine contributions to the field. This is what peer review is, and those that pass the process earn the reward of being shone in scientific lights through publication in an academic journal.

The gold standard of science, but nothing is perfect, and peer review is indeed far from that. A hoax paper entitled “Get Me Off Your F*cking Mailing List,” consisting solely of that sentence repeated over and over again which still managed to get published in an open-access journal, is just one of many examples that highlight how the system is in desperate need of an overhaul.

That is of course an extreme illustration of the situation, but predatory journals such as the one which accepted that paper are just one undesirable outcome of the pressure to publish in academia. Lengthy lists of publications and papers in prestigious journals with high impact factors, such as Nature and Science, are seen as hallmarks of success as a researcher. Some institutions also set annual publication targets, and publication records are known to play a significant part in the selection of projects to be awarded grants by research councils.

Of course, publications are an important part of scientific research; they promote the dissemination of results and therefore the application of discoveries, invite constructive criticism from peers, and allow researchers to replicate the experiments to ensure their validity. That said, the demand for papers means that scientists may be forced to hastily publish their work in low impact and sometimes obscure journals, just to keep playing the numbers game and survive in academia. This has unfortunately resulted in the arrival of predatory journals which will publish pretty much anything for a fee, which devalues genuine papers with reliable and important findings.

The increasing number of journals and papers is devaluing those of genuine importance. Sam Churchill/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The increasing number of journals and papers is devaluing those of genuine importance. Sam Churchill/Flickr CC BY 2.0

So who suffers the most as a result of this so-called “publish or perish” culture? With only around 30% of grant applications awarded funding, it’s clear that there is an ongoing struggle for the majority of researchers. However, early career researchers or women returning from maternity leave are some that bear the brunt of this issue.

“It really is a situation of publish or perish,” said Dr Eloise Mikkonen, a postdoctoral researcher who recently returned from maternity leave and turned to crowdfunding through Walacea to support her research on Alzheimer’s. “I’ve almost perished due to not having anything published in 4 years – I’ll have my first (first author) manuscript published in July since I graduated in 2011.”

Mikkonen’s last publication was in 2012, prior to going on maternity leave. “This has been frustrating,” she said. “I understand you need to prove yourself and get things done, but it’s very difficult with the stresses of being a mother of small children.

“They [research councils] do say that you can include in your applications information of maternity and parental leaves. But if you are struggling to set up your own research ideas and make a break at the same time as continuously applying for funding just to get some income each month, it can feel like a never-ending nightmare.”

Mikkonen has now been awarded the break she deserves, smashing her crowdfunding goal so that her important research can continue. But she also touches on another important issue, of trying to become independent and investigate novel ideas. While the pressure to publish may encourage progression in established areas of research, it may also stifle innovation. Rather than taking risks by exploring new ideas, which have the potential to lead to significant breakthroughs, research has suggested that the demand for publications means scientists are more likely to play safe and build on existing research.

Another issue of this publishing culture is that it leads to reporting bias. Since it seems that journals are more likely to accept papers with positive results that support hypotheses, the published literature is therefore skewed and not representative of the actual research that’s going on in the field.

Clearly this situation in academia is in need of addressing, and while there is no simple overnight solution, crowdfunding does have the potential to make a difference to the field. The method is still in its infancy in the UK but already it’s helped bring projects that were rejected from research councils to life, from studying friendships in dwarf mongooses to using 3D cameras to improve diagnostics in African children. And with the media and public attention that some campaigns received, most notably the first imaging study of LSD on the human brain, people evidently have an appetite for it. It’s an exciting time to get involved, so we hope you share our enthusiasm for seeing how this venture unfolds.

Project Update: Can The “Spirit Molecule” DMT Help Protect Brain Cells?

nick chapman/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

nick chapman/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

What do you associate with elves? Christmas? The Lord Of The Rings? DMT? For the vast majority of people, the latter is doubtful, and you’re probably left a little confused right now. But for those who have experienced the psychedelic effects of the hallucinogenic chemical DMT, the mention of elves may well have just flooded your mind with memories of that drug trip.

DMT, or N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, is a powerfully psychoactive compound that can induce profound experiences, such as the feeling of transcendence and intense visuals. These hallucinations commonly feature humanoid beings or entities sometimes described as elves.

But there’s much more to DMT than otherworldly creatures; some scientists believe it may have a place in modern medicine, and the brains behind a successful crowdfunding campaign launched on Walacea last year has made it his mission to explore this idea further. Six months on from the campaign’s closure, we caught up with this quirky scientist for an exciting update on how the project has progressed so far, and plans for the future.

Those who generously backed the project may be familiar with the science, but we’ll start off with a bit of background for those who aren’t. DMT is produced by many different plant species, some of which are used to make the hallucinogenic drink ayahuasca, used for centuries by Amazonian tribes in shamanic ceremonies. It’s also found naturally in very tiny amounts in humans, known as “endogenous DMT,” and fairly recently it was discovered that the human brain has multiple active transport mechanisms that allow it to cross our protective blood-brain barrier and cellular membranes. Together, these suggest that DMT likely has some role or purpose in the body, other than being a hallucinogen.

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Interestingly, DMT also acts on a cell receptor called sigma-1 which studies have indicated has a protective and restorative function in neurodegenerative diseases and brain ischemia, or the restriction of blood flow to the brain, suggesting it could also play a role in stroke. This, combined with the fact that near-death experiences have been likened to DMT trips, forms the foundations of Dr Ede Frecska and colleague Attila Szabó’s research, who believes that DMT could help protect brain cells from damage caused by a lack of oxygen, or hypoxia, such as during a heart attack, coma, or clinical death.

After successfully smashing his crowdfunding goal of £2,000 last November, raising almost £3,600, Ede Frecska and Attila Szabó have now completed the first phase of their studies, and the results were very promising.

“The experiments went much better than expected,” said Frecska, Chairman of Psychiatry at the University of Debrecen in Hungary. “We’ve done the in vivo experiments, using brain cells in a Petri dish, which is the stage before animals. We stressed these cells with low oxygen concentrations, and found that more survived when exposed to DMT.”

More specifically, Frecska explained that his team exposed human stem cells that had been coaxed into becoming neurons to low levels of oxygen and added varying concentrations of DMT to different dishes. As expected, being starved of oxygen caused the cells to become stressed and die, and adding very low concentrations of DMT didn’t seem to mitigate this. However, higher concentrations of DMT caused three times as many neurons to survive. They also repeated this procedure with a different type of brain cell, called glia, and found similar results.

“The next step is to start using animals,” said Frecska, “so I wish to publish this second DMT paper soon. We have already published work showing that DMT has an anti-inflammatory effect.” That’s also a potentially important find, since chronic inflammation has been linked to a myriad of diseases of civilisation, from Alzheimer’s to heart disease.

If results in such animal models are similarly encouraging, indicating some neuroprotective role of DMT during hypoxia, then Frecska hopes to pursue human trials, possibly investigating its use in individuals whose brains have sustained injury or a lack of blood, and thus oxygen flow. But to progress his work, Frecska needs further funding, which is hard to come by for most scientists, let alone those working on Schedule 1 drugs like DMT.

“Psychedelics are stigmatised,” said Frecska. “You don’t have an endogenous opioid system just so you can have a nice time in an opium cave! And we don’t have endogenous hallucinogens just to make us go crazy.

“But the opioid system has been studied for decades [for its role in pain, stress and immune regulation, etc.]; this didn’t happen after endogenous hallucinogens were discovered. People assume they just have a psychedelic effect. I’m trying to show scientists that this is a new chapter of research, that endogenous hallucinogens have a physiological role in the body.”

Psychedelics are proving themselves not only as promising therapeutics, particularly with regards to mental health, but also as a potential window for investigating fascinating subjects like consciousness – check out the groundbreaking LSD research we also helped crowdfund. It’s time to end the stigma so that more studies like these can be conducted, and so research isn’t hindered by outdated ideas that are rooted in fear rather than science. Thank you for helping towards that goal, and for bringing this study to life!

5 Tips For Your Crowdfunding Campaign Page

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If you’re crowdfunding for your research, you’re likely sick and tired of trying to convince people why your work is deserving of money. But creating a good campaign page needn’t be as laborious or tedious as grant applications; in fact, you might even enjoy writing it because it gets you to consider your research from a new perspective. And it’s your space, so use it as an opportunity to really showcase what you’re doing and sell it to the public.

Your work is exciting, you know that, but how are you going to convince others to think the same way? We’ve come up with some tips to help you with this important part of your campaign, so that hopefully your crowdfunding venture is as successful as it deserves to be! We’ve also written various other articles to help you on your way to success, so make sure to check out the “crowdfunding tips” section of our blog!

1: Tell A Story

This may seem fairly basic, but structuring your page logically will make the text flow better so that it’s easier to read and understand. If you lose people at the start by not introducing the project properly and giving it some context, then you’ll struggle to get people interested.

The “beginning” part of your story should offer some background – what’s the current situation, what are the issues within the field? You have only about 10 seconds to hook readers, so make your first few sentences impactful; don’t waffle, just get straight to the point.

In the “middle,” you need to introduce the solution, i.e. your research. What are you hoping to achieve, what can you bring to the table, and why is your work important? Try and bring in the reader here by thinking of ways, whether direct or indirect, that this work could ultimately affect them, or the world they live in.

Finally, at the end, you need to say what you need and why. How much are you asking for, and where exactly is that going? Try not to be too vague here and just say “we need £X for this project,” as people will want to know that their money is being well-spent. It would also be good to touch on the struggles of getting funding for research, so people understand the need for crowdfunding.

2: Show People Who You Are

After you’re done introducing the project, it’s important that you include a section on you and your team. We want to make sure you get the recognition you deserve and boost your network, so this is a really good way to break down the barriers between you/science, and the public.

If the campaign is faceless, it’s more difficult for people to share your passion. So show them that you’re more than just a stereotypical scientist, and are a likeable person. More importantly, explain what drives you to do your research and what makes you qualified to do it; tell people about your background and experience, and how that’ll make the project successful.

3: Ditch The Jargon

You want to appeal to as many people as possible, and the majority of the public aren’t experts in science. So don’t fill the text with complicated and off-putting science words; strip it back to its bare bones and only explain what you need to to get your point across. It’s not a grant application, so people don’t need to know the ins and outs of different scientific techniques, etc!

4: Remember Your Audience

Keep your audience at the forefront of your mind while drafting your campaign page. Think about who you’re addressing: are you aiming your campaign towards the general public, or perhaps a certain group of people, say environmentalists, parents, young people, etc. This will dictate the language and tone that you use. Put yourself in your readers’ shoes: what would they want to hear? For instance, if you’re crowdfunding for medical research, you could maybe include some words from someone affected by a particular health condition to help put the study into context.

5: Break Up The Text

A simple one, but important nonetheless. Confronting readers with big blocks of text is off-putting because it immediately puts them in the mindset that the read requires a lot of effort and concentration. People are often busy, so make your page less of a task by breaking up the text in two ways: using images and catchy subheadings.

With regards to the former, eye-catching images can help bring a sterile-looking page to life, keep the reader interested and help your audience understand what you’re talking about. Developing a new piece of tech? Show people the progress you’ve made! Taken some awesome microscope pictures? Include them!

There’s no real secret when it comes to the latter, but don’t overlook their importance as a way to maintain reader interest. Keep them short, snappy, and don’t include any jargon.

We hope you’ve found these tips helpful and use them to your advantage. It may seem like there’s a lot to consider, but just remember why you’re doing this, and your passion should effuse.

Good luck!

Crowdfunding: Why Science Needs Public Support

Benn Berrigan/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Benn Berrigan/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

“If it was legitimate science, then it wouldn’t need to be crowdfunded.”

This is a response we have sometimes unfortunately received when seeking support for campaigns. Aside from being far from the truth, this highlights an apparent lack of understanding of some of the difficulties that scientists face while trying to secure funding for their scientific research. So, we thought we would use this as an excuse to delve into the subject and catch up with the scientists behind some projects which have crowdfunded through Walacea, to show you just how tough the world of research can be and hopefully lay these ill-informed ideas to rest.

The life of an academic is not as glamorous as many may believe. Much of a researcher’s time is consumed by the laborious process of writing grant applications, a thankless task for the majority due to the depressingly low success rates. Last year, for instance, the Medical Research Council, one of the five major science research councils in the UK, funded only 23% of the grant applications it received. The MRC funding panels give proposals a score of between 0-10 and state that while 6s or above are considered fundable, due to competition they are never able to fund 6s, and only rarely award 7s.

“Everyone has struggled. It’s a big issue, how to get funding for your research,” said the Karolinska Institute’s Dr Christoffer Rahm, lead researcher of a pioneering clinical trial seeking support through crowdfunding, which hopes to reduce the risk that people with paedophilic disorder will sexually abuse children. For Rahm, a major stumbling block in terms of funding has been a lack of big publications in prestigious journals.

“If you don’t have many high-impact articles on your CV, then most grant funding committees will decline your application. I’ve been a bit unlucky when it comes to publications; I don’t have any super-big articles so far,” Rahm added.

Image credit: materials-science-journals/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Image credit: materials-science-journals/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Early-career scientists transitioning from a position within a research group to becoming a group leader also face considerable difficulty in securing grants. This is a critical phase for researchers in regards to funding, said Rahm, but there aren’t many grants to apply for.

The issues surrounding funding don’t end there, either. There is actually an entire field of research for which funding is incredibly difficult to secure: psychedelics. Drugs like LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) are grouped in the same category as heroin – Schedule 1 – meaning it’s not only almost impossible to gain approval for human studies into these substances, but funding bodies are extremely reluctant to award grants because of the perceived risks.

“Even though it’s legal to research these drugs, the associated political negativity deters funders,” said Professor David Nutt, former government advisor and professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. “You can get lots of money to study drug addiction, like with heroin and alcohol, but research councils aren’t interested in recreational drugs like psychedelics.

“Studying the effects of drugs and how they alter consciousness, rather than addiction, is a lot harder.”

Image credit: new 1lluminati/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Image credit: new 1lluminati/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Last year, Walacea hosted a crowdfunding campaign for the world’s first imaging study of the brain on LSD, exploring its effects on consciousness. It was a huge success, more than doubling its funding goal of £25,000, and the groundbreaking results have appeared in two high-impact journals – PNAS and Current Biology.

“Funding bodies will often promote themselves as being visionary and willing to take a risk, but they didn’t with this work,” said Imperial College London’s Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, lead researcher of the LSD studies. “We were refused support, our research was rejected. Scientifically, I think they made a wrong decision. I think we’re proving that now with major publications in top journals. Top scientists have spoken, and the work was quality.

“I hope in the future that they’re more willing to help move this field forward, but people should be made aware of the research they’ve neglected.”

But this research is about more than playing I told you so. There is a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that certain psychedelics may have therapeutic benefits for numerous mental health conditions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of drug scheduling, though, clinical research into these substances has been hampered.

“We did the first human research on psilocybin in the UK for 50 years,” said Carhart-Harris. “The first fMRI work with psychedelics, the first proper MDMA study using fMRI… We were doing pioneering research with modest resources and consistently delivering. Now that we have a solid platform and it’s harder to refute what we’ve achieved, things should be easier in the future.”

Image credit: this shows the staggering difference in brain activity between those receiving a placebo (left) and LSD (right). PNAS/Carhart-Harris et al., 2016.

Alongside helping scientific projects secure the funding they need to come to life, crowdfunding brings people together who are passionate about a cause and establishes a community of people who together can make change happen when, individually, they wouldn’t have been able to. And apart from the obvious benefits to the scientists themselves, the media coverage that campaigns can pick up shows funding bodies that the projects are of public interest, and thus increases the chances that future grant applications will be successful. For clinical research, there is also the added bonus of keeping pharmaceutical companies out of the picture.

“The results are more reliable, I think, if you don’t have to collaborate with the pharmaceutical industry,” said Rahm. “Because the researcher is free to decide the project, choose the outcome measures they want to look at, and interpret the results without conflict of interest; and that’s very serious. Crowdfunding is one of the solutions to that problem.”

Of course, crowdfunding is not attempting to replace or compete with research councils; the grants these bodies give out each year could never be matched by this platform. But it’s clear there is a need for it, and the overwhelming success of some previous campaigns shows that there is indeed a public appetite, too. Crowdfunding science is still very much in its infancy, but the ingredients are there, and needless to say we’re looking forward to watching this exciting journey unfold.

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