Using Video to Crowdfund Scientific Research

Are you like a lot of scientists who are struggling to fund your research or find collaborators to share ideas and costs? If you are, then you might be interested in new platforms that bring researchers together with fellow scientists, science enthusiasts, and potential sponsors.

One such platform is Thinkable, where people can learn, track, and fund science topics that are specifically interesting to them. Scientists create a profile on Thinkable and then upload a brief video (3 minutes max) describing a new idea for a study, a recent paper, a conference presentation, or just a tour of their laboratory. The idea is to have an online meeting place where scientists can interact directly with other people who are interested in their area of research.

I was contacted recently by Ben McNeil, one of the founders of Thinkable, who is a proponent of video as a means of science communication. He had seen my blog and some of my videos and decided to get in touch. We had a great Skype conversation about Thinkable and about the use of video by scientists to connect with other researchers and especially as a means to solicit crowdfunding. Ben wrote a complimentary blog post about me and my efforts in teaching videography to scientists. I’m hoping to meet up with him and colleagues next year when I visit Australia to share ideas.

How Does It Work? Visitors to the Thinkable site can follow a scientist or a specific project by becoming a fan. A prospective student interested in a particular field, for example, might follow an established researcher and learn more about the projects they are currently working on. Through the video snapshots, potential collaborators can see where their respective research areas overlap and perhaps embark on a joint project. Or a nature lover may want to support research on deserts, rainforests, or coral reefs—wherever their specific interest lies. Fans receive updates from the research they have chosen to follow.

Someone can become a sponsor with a donation of as little as $1. Sponsors receive in return more in-depth information and updates about the specific research project they support. They can learn first-hand about an exciting area of research—how it is conducted or how the findings will benefit society. They can follow the progress of the researcher as s/he conducts experiments and interprets the results.

I set up a profile on Thinkable to test it out and uploaded a couple of videos to see how that worked. Setting up a profile is very easy and fast, as is uploading videos. You just list a few facts about yourself, a brief bio, and contact information. There are then three areas for interaction. In “my ideas”, a researcher uploads a video (or image) to introduce a campaign, a poster, a paper, or a talk. You can add as many “ideas” as you like, but are restricted in terms of how much you can say or show about each one. A campaign is specifically used to solicit support for a research project. Here, a researcher provides a brief text description of the proposed project and explains why it is innovative, as well as a short video “pitch”. In “my sponsorships”, you have the option of allowing people to donate or sponsor your research through Thinkable; you may also choose to decline this option and only showcase your research. In “my thinkers”, you select other Thinkable researchers to follow. It took me about 20 minutes to set up a profile and upload a couple of videos. The interface was easy to navigate, and the finished feed is visually attractive.

There are several examples of campaigns on the Thinkable landing page where you can get a better idea of how other researchers are using video to pitch their ideas.

Why Video? Thinkable founders have focused on video as an effective medium for sharing science information. Researchers are encouraged to use video snapshots to connect with fellow scientists, students, and science enthusiasts. Of course, I’m all in favor of video as a medium to share science information and also think that this approach lends itself well to crowdfunding efforts. Video snapshots force a scientist to pare their message down to the core idea behind their proposed project and to make their case concisely and convincingly. I find that many proposals fail because the PI gets bogged down in too much detail and neglects to state a single, clear goal and anticipated outcome. I think that making a three-minute video can help a proposer find and articulate that message. Potential supporters, especially the general public, will likely appreciate the video approach, as opposed to a lot of text.

In addition to raising funds, a scientist can showcase their research publications with brief videos on Thinkable, which are then discoverable by search engines. A video on a sharing platform such as Thinkable is freely accessible, in contrast to a journal article, which is likely behind a paywall. So someone without a journal subscription can still learn about your work by watching a video. But such visual snapshots are more than just a way to make one’s work more visible online. As I’ve explained in previous posts, videos allow authors to explain their work in ways they cannot with the journal article. Video can enrich a technical article and encourage the reader/viewer to explore the topic further.

The video format also does not violate copyright restrictions typically imposed by science journal publishers but instead allows the scientist to visually share important insights from their work. Quite a few authors infringe copyright law by posting the journal-formatted pdf on their websites or on other repositories. Some are unaware that they are violating copyright, whereas others do it knowingly and assume they won’t be challenged. A better approach is to produce a separate information product that simply displays the essence of the work in an easily accessible and understandable format—such as video. When posted online, these visual products serve as pointers to the original publication hosted on a journal’s website. You own the copyright to the video since you’ve created it using your own media and data from your publication (as author you retain intellectual property rights to your data and any contents of a publication).

Filling a Need. Although other video-sharing platforms such as YouTube are currently where many scientists are posting their videos, there is a need for dedicated platforms where researchers can share information and interact with science information consumers and potential sponsors. I think there will be more platforms like Thinkable in the future, and many will be designed around video to solicit funding or to display scientific information. Science information consumers and sponsors will increasingly expect media-rich content on such sites, and scientists must be prepared to provide it.