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In many fields of research, there are some tasks that are self-contained and could be done effectively by someone who is not a full time member of a research group, but has the required skill and background. The task may be time-sensitive but often everyone is already fully tasked.

One might call them part-time or contract or temporary post-docs.

There are plenty of situations I can think of where this might not work, or would be a bad idea, but perhaps there are cases where the benefits outweigh any potential academic risks. They might involve a side-project, or an early foray into a potentially interesting area where there is no current expertise or time for someone to start from zero even though things might not pan out.

Because this would not be an employee situation, work would have to be done off-site. It might involve reading, writing, searching, programming, thinking, checking for errors (grammatical, logical, arithmetic...), or other tasks that could be exchanged electronically, and where the results could be checked and confirmed afterward. (You wouldn't want you primary data analysis done for example by "someone on the internet"!)

However I've never really heard of such a thing except in special circumstances where the individual has a previous relationship with the research group, and even then it can be difficult to work out the proper monetary mechanisms with the university administration, or funding agencies. "Consultant fees" are not a common line-item in research proposals.

Are there situations where this is changing? Are there any examples of micro-grants to get small jobs done in non-standard ways such as this? Is there even some better vocabulary to use to describe this kind of arrangement than "gig-egonomy" jobs?


edit: Seeing some the comments below it struck me that this might not be a very popular concept among regular post-docs. I don't think this type of resource will ever put normal post-doc positions at significant risk. But here I'm just asking if it happens, how might it be funded, and what it might be called, not if it's a good idea.

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    In mathematics, you would simply find someone with the relevant expertise and invite them to collaborate with you on your project. It is considered perfectly polite to make such offers, and for the offeree to either accept or decline as she wishes. Pay wouldn't generally be expected; co-authorship certainly would be. I take it you are describing a research field where this is uncommon? – Anonymous Jul 30 '17 at 17:08
  • @Anonymous the tasks I've tried to outline are let's say orthogonal to collaborative work; tasks that might be routine, thankless, or have a higher than average probability of going nowhere. The kinds of tasks you wish you could just pay a small fee and have someone finish for you. It's not a traditional academic scenario, and may not ever be in widespread use, but it could come in handy. To be clear, I am not asking if it is a good idea or not, just does it happen, how it might be funded, and what it might be called. – uhoh Jul 30 '17 at 17:17
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    routine, thankless, or have a higher than average probability of going nowhere — Or in other words, research. – JeffE Jul 30 '17 at 17:56
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    Thanks for clarifying the comment after I replied. If you want postdoc level work to be done then I agree with Anonymous: find a postdoc to collaborate with, or just do the work yourself. Every job has its boring bits. – astronat Jul 30 '17 at 17:58
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    @uhoh I'm well aware. Please read my comment again- I've edited to make it easier to understand. By the way, a useful term for this could be "outsourcing". – astronat Jul 30 '17 at 18:01
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I've seen this happen in a sort of temporary 'research assistant/intern' role. Normally there's data that needs to be crunched or transcriptions done and it works to have someone come in to do it whilst the main researchers are doing the actual analysis/research. These can be paid, but usually tend to be from a local university or similar.

For bigger projects, there are transcription and data services available online which can do large volumes of that sort of work for you, normally on a per page/per data set model.

I know you have explicitly said you don't want opinions on if it's a good idea, however I can't ever imagine many people wanting to farm parts of their research out to unknown people on the internet. The vast majority of research is sensitive either in terms of the raw data or in terms of the research goal. It would be too easy for someone to copy your work and beat you to the punch if you were working on something of interest. Therefore I can't really say how it might be funded or what it might be called, because I can't imagine it actually coming into fruition

  • Thanks for your answer! I agree that there is a fear factor as well as some level of true risk in the general neighborhood of theft of ideas or research plans, and even if it were an exploratory idea, if it turned out to be interesting there would be the same fear on the part of the researcher and disappointment on the part of the 'contractor' of having to let something interesting go. Perhaps there is something fundamental in the structure of the research group that's evolved to accommodate the vagaries of human thought and behavior. – uhoh Jul 31 '17 at 2:19
  • After considering this for a (very) long time (I really have in this case!) I've come to the conclusion that this is probably the right answer. There are too many human behavioral concerns for "gig" research contributions to catch on, except perhaps in unique, isolated situations. Thanks! – uhoh Feb 8 at 1:20

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