Social Payments in Science

Related to crowdfunding, but not entirely the same, are new tools known as social payments. Typically, these are micropayments given for content that already exists on the net. They share with crowdfunding the notion of many small payments generating large income through accumulation. Flattr[1] and Kachingle[2] are two tools commonly associated with social payments. They are a little different from each other, but share the idea that a content creator embeds a small button on its webpage, and a content financer in pushing that button ships a small payment to the content creator.

When the New York Times put their blogs behind a flexible paywall in 2010, Kachingle rose to the occasion and allowed the readers to “kachingle” the New York Times blogs, in other words transferring a little bit of money to the writers behind the blogs every time they visited the site. The New York Times was not amused and sued Kachingle for using their trademarks—which in the eyes of most commentators was a reaction to new forms of financing typical of a news monolith. Flattr, another social payment provider, has deep connections with the Creative Commons ecosphere. The website Creative Commons employs a Flattr-button to earn micropayments[3] and many bloggers are putting their content both under a CC license and a Flattr-button. However, there is also one mishap present: Creative Commons are typically shared under a Non-Commercial Clause, which would prohibit the use of Flattr on any blog licensing content into the public domain.[4]

How can social payments be applied to science? Already Scienceblogs are using the social payment system—not necessarily for monetary gains but also for sharing content, engaging in conversation with readers, and measuring relevance[5]:

“It is easy to find out how many people access a certain Internet site—but those numbers can be deceiving. Knowing that X number of people have clicked on my article on Y is no doubt a good start. But I have no real insight on how many had a genuine interest in precisely this article and have read my article and appreciated it and how many only found my site after a Google search and left after 5 s. There may be tools allowing me to find answers to these questions, but they will most likely require a lot of work and analysis. But if I have a Flattr-button under each of my articles, I can assume that only people who really appreciated reading them will click on it—after all, this click costs them real money.” says Florian Freistetter, author of a blog on Astronomy.

The real potential of social payments lies in combination with Open Access journals, archives, and publications. Imagine, for instance, databases of publicly available data which allow the users of content to flattr or kachingle the site whenever they visit it? This would allow the making of money from scientific content beyond the traditional licensing systems of universities and libraries. Imagine if a university has a Flattr account filled with 100,000 Euros per year. Every time a university member accesses a scientific journal, the 100,000 Euro is divided among the clicks. This could generate a demand-based but fully transparent way of funding science.

Social payments could also be integrated into direct funding: For instance, through scientists receiving a certain amount of public money or money from funding institutions which cannot be used for their own projects but must be donated to other projects in their discipline. Funds as yet unassigned would remain in a payment pool until the end of the year and then be divided up equally among all projects.

There seems to be some evidence [6] showing that distributions of social pay-

ments follow roughly the sharing and distribution behavior of content. In other words, content which is often liked, shared, and tweeted is more likely to receive funds through Flattr.

Social payments are thus likely to generate an uneven distribution of science funding—controversial, popular articles and data might generate more income than scientific publications in smaller fields.

Groundbreaking research might profit from such a distribution mechanism, especially if a new idea applies to a variety of disciplines. The established citation networks of scholars and the Matthew Effect mentioned above might even be stabilized.

Social payments in combination with measuring social media impact could provide an innovative means of measuring relevance in science. Such indices would not replace traditional impact scores, such as appearances in journals, invitations to congresses, and third-party funding, but would allow assessment of the influence of scientific publications within the public sphere.

Virtual Currencies in Science

All of the tools described above relate in one way or another to real cash-flows in the overall economy. However, these mechanisms might also work with virtual currencies which may be linked to existing currencies, but not in a 1-to-1relationship.

In Flattr, it is customary to be able to use the earned income within the system to Flattr new content, without having to withdraw cash. The Flattr ecosystem generates its own value of worth. Similarly, on crowdfunding sites such as Sellaband[7] or Sonicangel,[8] fans can use some of the rewards they receive to fund new artists. The money stays inside the ecosystem of the platform. Virtual currencies are used often in games, whereby gamers can turn real money into virtual money such as Linden Dollars on Second Life or Farmdollars on Farmville; the virtual money buys goods and services inside the game, both from other players and the game provider, and the earned income can be withdrawn at any time. It might be conceivable that a scientific community creates its own virtual currency. The currency could be used to trade and evaluate access to data, publications, or other scientific resources. Let us imagine for instance that a scientist receives a certain amount of 'Aristotle-Dollars' for every publication in the public domain. Based on the amount of 'Aristotle-Dollars' which they earn, they receive earlier access to public data.

  • [1] Flattr:
  • [2] Kachingle:
  • [3] FlattrBlog:
  • [4] Techdirt:
  • [5] Science Blogs:, translated by the authors
  • [6] Medien-O¨ konomie-Blog:
  • [7] Sellaband:
  • [8] Sonicangel:
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