Anthologize: 5 lessons for microfunding of research and development projects
Anthologize is that great new tool designed during the One Week, One Tool project. It seems to have taken the world by storm partly thanks to the #oneweek Twitter frenzy and as the #anthologize stream indicates, its off to a stellar start. It may seem too early to look for lessons learned for the future of research but a few things can be concluded.
Lesson 1: Small, cheap, short-term projects can produce great results
One of the questions raised around the idea for JISC Elevator was whether there are enough projects that can achieve something with small amounts of funding. Since one of the points of this site is to advocate microgrants as a way of funding responsive agile research, I’m gratified to see that Anthologize clearly shows that it is possible.
Lesson 2: Take first steps knowing that they’re only first steps
It is important to keep in mind that Anthologize 0.3 is only the first step but one that probably would never have happened without this “kickstart”. And also even if the project ultimately fails (which it probably won’t), the initial cost was sufficiently low, that there would be no need to pretend otherwise. The problem with large funded projects is that they leave no room for failure. They are expected to lay out their future before they even commence and nobody knows where they’re going, sometimes for years. I once reviewed a large EU-funded VLE project costing hundreds of thousands of EUR that produced a new proprietary VLE (in 2008). It would have been much more successful as a short project that would build a series of Moodle/Blackboard plugins to achieve the few things it wanted to do not found in existing VLEs. If they had had to do what One Week, One Tool did – have an initial public brainstorm with a prototype at the end, the futility of their effort would have been seen immediately. Just like with microcredit, we should not expect microfunding to achieve what we believe macrofunding can. It’s just the first step.
Lesson 3: Outreach is essential, but it can be multifaceted
Not all projects can garner the same public attention as One Week, One Tool. It was the first of its kind (or at least the first with an explicitly stated mission) and it was run by the thought leaders in its community. But its notoriety did not happen by accident. From the initial Twitter campaign and division of roles to the website and a ready-to-go at launch developer forum, this project shows that communication with target audience is important at all stages. I’m still not convinced how important the secrecy around the tool being built was. For instance, I know someone built a business for creating year books out of forum contributions in Drupal many years ago. Perhaps the team would have benefited from feedback from the community, perhaps, they would have been too distracted by it. But again, this was a unique situation, most similar projects shouldn’t start with an initial “so, what are we going to do” headscratch. They would be the outcome of an existing conversation. Kind of like a code sprint.
Notice that the one thing, this project did not produce was a glossy brochure.
Lesson 4: Little money can go a long way in the long run
I’m aware that One week, One tool probably wasn’t that cheap. Even if everyone had donated their time, it must have cost around $10,000 (travel + accommodation, expenses for 12 people for 7 days). But this wasn’t that different from what a normal summer school would cost and given the result, still cheap. However, most similar funding would go to working within an existing project and you can see how successful the Google Summer of Code project has been with only $5,000 per project. As I mentioned above, most similar projects would not be starting from scratch, they would be just one step in an existing conversation.
But let’s imagine that JISC or ESRC would take a 100,000 out of the next million of project funding and spend it on kickstarting 10 similar one-week summer-school like projects. Even if only one of them produced results similar to Anthologize, it’s possible that that 100,000 would be a better investment than the remaining nine hundred.
Lesson 5: From code development to research
This is a lesson that has yet to be learned and I’m not aware that anybody’s teaching it yet. Can we transition from generating code to generating knowledge? From building a software tool to building research instruments?
I am convinced that this sort of funding model would be suitable to research in many different areas particularly in the humanities and the social sciences. The micro-funded projects would not all have to follow the one-week workshop model. They could be a month of blogging and asking questions compiling micro-case studies. Two days of reading and tweeting about literature in a field. Or a week for designing a series of experiments that can be than carried out by others. Above all, these projects could provide great opportunities for practitioners, graduate students and established researchers to work together on projects in a relationship of mutual-apprenticeship. Possibly even transforming ‘evidence-based practice‘ into ‘evidence-generating practice’.
The experiences of Action Research show that this is possible, but what more could be achieved if we leveraged the potential of these new community-building tools supported by a new model of funding.
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