I have written multiple opensource programs as part of my PhD, and some of these programs require a dedicated server somewhere on the internet to work. Mainly it is online databases, but also things like project homepages, version update checks, usage-metric logging, etc.

I currently host all these website/databases for free from my own stipend, but as the services have grown, I'm now paying about 10-20% of my monthly stipend on hosting bills. It's not much, only about €100 a month, but you certainly feel it when you're main source of nutrition is unguarded coffee and biscuits.

So my question is how best to monetize software to academics if you're a one-man-band. I could set up a paypal account, or something similar - but never in a million years could I see my PI setting up a lab PayPal account. Donations for server costs would then most likely come from generous students/post-docs, and I don't really see that as a fair or acceptable system. I want people to pay from their grant money, as it should be. What is the best way to do this?

In light of the answers, I feel that "pay for it with your own grant money" is somewhat of a non-starter. Here's two reasons why:

  1. The software developed was not a requirement or goal of the PhD. It was created as a side-reaction of the PhD as the software I wanted to use to analyze my data was difficult to use, expensive, non-existant, etc. Based on no real data, just my observations from working in the Open Source community, 99% of OS software is written to solve the author's current problem, which then gets generalized to solve other people'e problems too, so I don't see my situation as being unusual. Still, I cannot reasonably ask my PI for money on something that was never originally part of the PhD plan. One would even have a hard time justifying that the software was required for the PhD, if the original plan did not foresee using it. For example, one program gives highly-detailed Quality Control reports. Our data passes all of these strict/new QC tests. Therefore, was it even a requirement?

  2. Following on from point 1, but really this is a separate issue, what my PI would be paying for would be for other people to use the software. To handle just the needs of my project, I don't need any online servers - I could make do with just local services and disk space. In fact i've already applied all this software to the project, so now it could just be deleted. No need to register domain names, no AWS hosting costs, no evenings spent making sure the community around my software is happy and productive, etc. In short, if my PI was generous enough to see my software as an integral part of the PhD and worthy of funding (part 1), he would also have to come to the conclusion that it's worth spending his grant money on other people's projects, which I am confident he not only would do out of principle, he might not even be allowed to.

So - I really only see two possible options going forward:

  1. I apply for a new grant, totally separate from my PhD project, to cover the costs of hosting.

  2. The community using the software/services pay directly, using some mechanism that I currently do not know about. Some way a PhD student can buy software online and charge it directly to their grant, rather than with personal funds.

  • 6
    First, I agree with Scott S. that you should not cover these expenses yourself if these are for research. Second, if you want to monetize anything you should be clear about ownership and licenses. Many (most ) of the time you just don't own the code what you write as part of a research project. And when some part of your code is open-source.. Third, if your work you may want to connect a software company if they want to be a distributor for you. They have sales channels, marketing, they can do billing, etc what many academic need to do properly if they want to purchase anything from you.
    – Greg
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 5:26
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    Generally speaking, academic software which is provided as a service is funded by its own grant, rather than by the grants of its users. If you are providing an useful service, your PI ought to be applying for a grant to fund its hosting, or funding it from one of their other grants.
    – MJeffryes
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 15:34
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    Be careful, in many universities the software you wrote isn't actually yours, whether it's open source or not. Before you think about how to monetize your software (which seems entirely fair), make sure you are allowed to. Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 17:06
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    Universities regularly provide web servers for other people to use their tools. The advantage for them is that your work (and hence, the institution), gets publicity, and your published work used more (and more cited). I think it is perfectly acceptable to at least ask your PI to pay for this.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 14:48
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    for EC2 in particular, a nicely worded e-mail explaining what they are being used for and the benefits they provide may yield an "academic credit" to help pay for the costs of the servers Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 13:23

5 Answers 5


You should let your PI know what resources you need to carry out your work, and discuss how such resources can be provided. You should not be footing the bill in the first place, so there should be no need to monetize to recover.

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    110% agreed. You should not be footing the bill, certainly not for €100/month! If the PI can't provide funding, the PI or university should work with you to take over hosting. Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 23:35

There is an easy solution. Turn off the services. If your services are important (to someone else), then that someone else will figure a way to finance them.

This is not your problem.

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    This. If it's not needed for the PhD, pull the plug.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 14:25

I agree with the other answers that it is unreasonable to expect you to pay it from your own budget. However, since you stated your software is open source, it might be possible to use existing solutions such as github to distribute your code and host a homepage for the project with instructions.

There is stil the issue that your software apparently uses other resources such as online databases. It depends on the details of your software, but perhaps you could provide the necessary information for other groups to setup their own infrastructure (e.g., minimal database dumps, or other server code). If server names are not hardcoded in your code, it should be fairly easy to make this configurable. This gives other groups the possibility the use your software, while at the same time releasing you from hosting the infrastructure.

For your own usage I agree with Scott Seidman: ask your PI if your institute can provide the necessary services.

Alternatively you could try asking money for the services, but in my opinion this will likely lead to a bigger hassle than is worth it. Aside from legal issues, if people pay for something they expect something in return. Are you willing to provide support? Fix your server if it crashes at 3am while your users are trying to make a deadline?


You have three options, choose the following based on your budget, time, and expertise:

  1. University: You could kindly ask the university's system administrator to host your files on a permanent address. This is very possible, and seen this before many times. In this case the users could either download them without permission (university credentials) or with permission.

  2. From Home: Other solution would be to get your own server, and host your files from home. Here is the catch: you don't need the usual 19" servers, all you need is an old computer that lays around or get a cheap one and put your host over there. You will need to pay for a domain name (~10$/year), and figure out the DNS either by figuring out yourself or pay another 50$/year for easy to configure solutions. Other software (OS, HTTP, FTTP, DB like MySQL) are all free; all you need is to choose a Linux distribution and go from there.

  3. Free and Public Online Repositories: You can look into websites like Github and put your code with the instructions on how to execute them and its documentation.

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    I really think this is a bad answer. PhD students should not be expected to bear the burden of hosting academic software under any circumstance. And any request for the student's institution to host this service should go via the student's PI.
    – MJeffryes
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 15:31

An option here is to go down the route of virtual private servers. There are a number of sites to host these. Digital ocean, Rackspace,Amazon Web Services (AWS) a few others. Monetization can be done in a number of ways and it is worth researching how exactly to do this. Advertising for example (e.g. Adsense or affiliate marketing), if you want to get paid for software however Payapl is an option because it is simple. Another option is something like Stripe Atlas which allows incorporation.

  • This was the only answer that spoke to how to sell/buy software to/as an Academic - indirectly via Adverts :( It really wasn't the answer I was looking for, but I suppose its something. Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 13:53

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