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Frustrated Scholar Creates New Way to Fund and Publish Academic Work

In 2011, Tim Peterson was your archetypal frustrated academic. He’d just landed a paper in the journal Cell but had grown disillusioned with the publishing process after nine months of back-and-forth among his team, the reviewers, and the editors.

“I was just totally disgusted by the whole process,” says Mr. Peterson, now 37 and working as a postdoctoral fellow in biology at Harvard University. “I remember when I stood up and said I don’t want to be a part of this anymore.”

So Mr. Peterson began to think. Then he taught himself to code. And finally, on May 14, all that thinking and coding converged to form a website, Onarbor.

The site is intended as a publishing and funding platform for academics, kind of like a Kickstarter for scholarly work. Among its features is that it allows donors to support projects with either Bitcoin or Dogecoin, two popular cryptocurrencies.

Onarbor is designed to circumvent the traditional mechanisms of peer review by fostering a community of user-reviewers modeled on the popular tech-help website Stack Overflow. There, users earn reputation points based on the quality of their responses.

Mr. Peterson thinks this crowdsourced review system will be more efficient and more comprehensive than the traditional method. “It’s algorithmic reputation building. It’s far better than three people in a room deciding whether or not they like your work,” he says. “It’s the sum of thousands of thousands of people saying your work is good or bad.”

Mr. Peterson describes Onarbor as a “start-up university” that allows scholars to finance and publish new ideas—what he calls academe’s “core mission”—without institutional handcuffs. In practice, the product is still messy. Some people, he says, are using the site to sell T-shirts. Others have posted artwork. He doesn’t want to police what people publish, especially in the early going.

The site has had 20,000 page views since launching, just over two weeks ago, Mr. Peterson says. About 200 projects have been posted by the site’s roughly 1,000 registered users, he estimates, with contributions totaling about $5,000. Onarbor takes about 10 percent of each contribution.

Most of the interest so far, he believes, has been from cryptocurrency enthusiasts, not academics. Mr. Peterson introduced Onarbor last week on a subreddit dedicated to Bitcoin, sparking a fervent online conversation that covered such topics as the purpose of cryptocurrency and the ethics of academic fund raising in nontraditional settings.

While shepherding the site’s growth, Mr. Peterson says he’ll post some of his own work, too, although he’ll reserve some for the academic-publishing process he loathes. “In order to progress in my job, I need to play by the rules a little bit,” he says.

This isn’t the first time crowdsourced fund raising has linked up with academe. The websites Experiment.com (formerly Microryza) and Petridish.org allow users to back science-based research. There have also been prominent instances of academics’ using mainstream crowdfunding sites, like Kickstarter, to aid research. Even students have tapped into the power of the crowd, with some petitioning online users to help ease tuition costs.

Mr. Peterson’s site goes a step beyond crowdfunding by providing both a publishing platform and an outlet for review. But at root he’s still hoping to harness the energy of the Internet masses to determine what’s worthy of support and what isn’t. As he puts it, “You can’t fake 5,000 people liking your stuff if it isn’t any good.”

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