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Professors in research universities often rely on graduate students as research assistants who work on a variety of tasks including analysis, coding, experimentation, and writing. When funding is available, hiring graduate students shouldn't be too difficult. In the place I work, I don't have much access to graduate students (very few, unmotivated students are there). But I have been thinking of hiring freelancers to do some of the dirty work I might have. For example, I may want to write code for a method that I have developed. This might be done by a freelancer that has some good background knowledge in my area.

But I haven't done this before. I want to ask this community about whether professors do use platforms such as UpWork to hire freelancers in their research projects. Is this common? Has anyone actually tried this? Can this work?

I appreciate your answers.

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It is not impossible, but it is fairly rare.

First, a few examples of this occurring.

  1. A collaborator's lab hired a "consultant" who specialized in a few specific techniques. He came for a few months: set up some new equipment, calibrated/adapted it for the lab's particular needs, trained lab members in its use, and then moved on. I think he had been a research scientist and was now semi-retired; he wasn't otherwise affiliated with the equipment manufacturer or university.

  2. Two friends are working as contract coders. They help standardize, document, and polish labs' motley collection of scripts. One of them worked on an analysis "platform" as part of his PhD, and he also helps move work from those ad-hoc scripts onto the platform.

  3. My current lab outsources some fabrication work to a machinist. We don't do enough of it to justify having our own shop, but what we do want sometimes want something with tight tolerances or made from odd materials.

However, these are relatively rare occurrences. Why?

I partially agree with Brian Borchers' answer, but I think it's a bit more subtle than that. Many funders aren't explicitly opposed to contractors, but their policies implicitly discourage them. Trainee labor is relatively cheap, if sometimes in a penny-wise, pound-foolish sort of way, and can be funded in a lot of ways, some of which don't tap into the research funding (e.g, training grants, fellowships, etc). Contractors are more expensive and can only be paid out of the research funds, making them a better fit for projects with large budgets and tight timelines. Indeed, some DAPRA work is done almost entirely by contractors!

Freelancing usually also involves tightly-scoped, easy-to-verify tasks: build the specific thing in these blueprints, write code to connect this to that, etc. Research is often more exploratory and open-ended: not only do you want to implement your proposed method, but also understand it--and perhaps the problem it is intended to solve too. It will be tough to ensure that any lessons learned along the way transfer back to the"research" component. You'll need to verify those conclusions too, along with whatever work product is produced. I think this is often tough to do, and universities have surprisingly little infrastructure that helps with it.

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I don't see any problem with this, though you need to consider whether their work rises to the level of shared authorship. Mostly it would not if you direct their behavior (your IP, not theirs). Of course you need to find funds for this.

Large scientific projects (think CERN) hire a lot of techs to manage the equipment, though many of them are also listed as co-authors on papers.

Another possibility, of course, is to establish a collaborative contact or two where the team as a whole has all the necessary skills.

And some projects might even be used to motivate the unmotivated.

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In the US context, this could be very difficult. The first issue is that it is likely that the grant budget allocated money specifically for graduate student research assistants (and often undergraduate students.) Funds for student support appear under different budget categories than outside contractors and thus the money could not be spent on non-student freelancers.

Yes, you could write contractors into the grant budget from the beginning, but you're likely to find that the funding agency doesn't want to fund contractors. Funding agencies like the NSF prefer to fund this kind of student support because it supports the broader impact of more graduates in the discipline.

The second issue is that most institutions in the US would prefer that grant funds be spent on student support rather than paying contractors. Even if your funding agency allowed hiring contractors, it's likely that your university administrators would say "no."

It is true that many social science researchers have used services like Mechanical Turk to recruit paid subjects for their research. However, the amounts of money involved are typically quite small, and in many cases, the work requires research subjects who would be hard to recruit in a college environment. There's a big difference between paying someone $15 to fill out a survey and hiring a contractor to do $50,000 of programming work.

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    With $50,000, you could hire an entire team to make shrinkwrap-level software in an year's time... :)
    – Lodinn
    Feb 5, 2022 at 0:48
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    @Lodinn I don't know which part of the world you are thinking of but in the US $50,000 might buy you one software development freelancer for 6 months but certainly not a whole team of them for an entire year.
    – quarague
    Feb 5, 2022 at 7:02
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    @quarague Hiring on UpWork has an added benefit of doing so globally - I have a friend in Switzerland whose company outsources all of their IT needs to a team of ~5 in Ukraine for what would be below the minimum wage in Switzerland, and both sides are very happy with the arrangement :) Outside such extremes it is still cheaper in most other countries. There is, of course, an issue of being able to spend funding that way - works for the industry, not so much for state-funded endeavors I would guess.
    – Lodinn
    Feb 5, 2022 at 11:04
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This is not very common; students make for a cheaper workforce. Of course, everyone is after skillful and motivated students, but hiring them outside of the relentless exploitation of labor in academia easily costs twice to quadruple as much. Companies do ridiculously long internships for essentially the same reason :) So yes, one could do that, but unless the students are hopeless and the project is boring and unable to stimulate that, it quickly becomes unfeasibly expensive.

And given the nature of the work in academia, it is common to have an industry professional or a team to work part-time in the lab or outsource projects to them; often that would be coming from old academic connections... And once again, it is possible to pay under the market rate if your project is interesting enough - as it should be the case in science.

It is all about the resources and their availability. Besides the "cynical" part outlined above, knowledge-based work, especially in science, comes with a lot of hidden costs. Notably, it pays off to have long-term working relationship with someone to not bear the cost of them learning every single time. Knowledge is sticky.

So all in all, this is completely possible, but the return on investment is simply not good. As a move of desperation - maybe.

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The other answers suggest that using freelancers for research is rare, difficult, and uncommon. That has not been my experience while freelancing on Upwork from 2022. Most of my jobs were to help with the statistics and, especially, the software side of academic research projects (probably due to my PhD in statistics and software developer background). It does seem easier for final-year PhD students to spend their funding on freelancers*, but requests from career academics are also on the rise.

This could be due to the increasing importance of getting research software right and the realization that the best person for this job could be outside the research institution. Ideally, however, the developer would understand the science behind the research, which is not always the case with freelancers. Work quality also varies a lot between freelancers.

So it could be worth assessing the benefits of a freelance developer — faster completion, better code, saved researcher’s time — versus the costs (money, onboarding time, dealing with 20-100 proposals, etc). For some academic projects, a freelancer might be the more efficient alternative.

*Disclaimer: I never help with homework assignments, and it is against Upwork rules (which, sadly, are often unenforced). I always make sure that a PhD student is authorized to seek a freelancer’s assistance.

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But I haven't done this before. I want to ask this community about whether professors do use platforms such as UpWork to hire freelancers in their research projects. Is this common? Has anyone actually tried this? Can this work?

From my own experience of freelancing via UpWork, professors and students^1 do hire freelancers. Note that in case of students it is obviously unethical when hiring to do homework, but when PhD students or postdoc solicit expertise from a different field to help in their research work, it is probably as fair as when a professor does it.

The most important ethical issue is that the collaborator is usually not offered co-authorship - unlike the collaboration with a student or a qualified colleague.

The most important practical issue is that one is likely not supposed to spend the money earmarked for PhD students or consultants. As far as I can judge, the money usually comes from personal funds and the amounts are simply too small by western standards to justify serious effort by a freelancer. The best that one can hope is finding somebody from a third world, for whom such a small amount of money might be not insignificant... but this often implies sifting through lots of bad candidates (and possibly spending some funds on them.) Note that you will be in competition with real companies (startups and small businesses in search of expertise) who are ready to pay real salaries.

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