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Freelance scientists

Websites connect companies with researchers offering freelance services

Vitor Rocha

Scientists from many fields have begun offering their services on a freelance basis due to the professional opportunities presented by generally short-term projects. Aware of the growing demand in this area over recent years, especially abroad, online platforms such as Kolabtree, Cactus Communications, Pivigo, and Upwork have given organizations and independent professionals a way to connect.

These websites are part of what is known as the gig economy—a term used to define working relationships established between freelancers and companies, widely used in accounting, law, transportation, and delivery services. Scientific research is one of the rising sectors.

“In Brazil, working on research projects as a freelancer is still not common practice,” notes Celine Pompeia, who has been offering her scientific knowledge on two of these websites since the end of 2019. “As well as being an option for people who don’t want to or can’t find full-time work, it’s an interesting way to keep up to date on research being conducted in different places around the world,” she adds. Pompeia has a degree in pharmacy and biochemistry, another in law, and a master’s and a PhD, all from the University of São Paulo (USP). Her résumé includes a total of five postdoctorates, four of which she did at institutions in the USA. The projects she has worked on through freelancer websites include writing and editing scientific articles in the field of biomedicine. “Usually I edit texts by other researchers wishing to submit them to scientific journals, which requires knowledge about the area of study, as well as the norms and specifications demanded by particular publications,” she explains.

Thanks to their global reach, these websites tend to offer projects in a wide range of locations around the world. More than 15,000 scientists are registered on Kolabtree, a company founded in 2015 and based in London, England. With the aim of increasing access to scientific knowledge, the company provides a way for companies to connect with trained professionals offering services such as statistical and data analysis, product formulation and development, and consulting on subjects ranging from how restaurants can make best use of food to how industries can improve production lines. Pivigo, also based in London, was founded seven years ago to help small businesses that cannot afford to keep data scientists on staff, connecting them to professionals willing to work on a project-by-project basis.

Cactus Communications, which focuses more on scientific content solutions such as editing, translation, and proofreading in various languages, was created in Mumbai, India, in 2002 to help researchers with scientific communication processes, primarily in submitting articles for publication. Around 3,000 freelance professionals from more than 90 countries are registered on the platform. American website Upwork, on the other hand, is not restricted to scientists. It also offers freelance services related to logo production, illustration, software development, graphic design, and more. In general, work contracted through these websites is paid by the hour and done online, avoiding the need for negotiation outside the virtual environment and reducing the likelihood of contract disputes.

Thanks to their experience completing work within fixed deadlines, as they often have to at a postdoctoral level, for example, many researchers are comfortable taking on short-term projects. “It’s not just small companies that are unable to take an institutional approach to investing in scientific studies—today many organizations face difficulties maintaining large research teams. The services provided by freelance researchers is an efficient way to meet these demands,” says Carlos Frederico de Oliveira Graeff, dean of research at São Paulo State University (UNESP). As well as giving organizations—especially small or medium ones—access to the benefits of scientific research, Graeff also highlights the need to diversify the existing relationship between research and innovation, noting that there is a bottleneck at universities, which should not be seen as the only place to carry out research. “Creating an ecosystem that offers multiple ways to solve a problem is crucial to promoting innovation,” says Graeff.

Tomoe Daniela Hamanaka Gusberti has worked as a data analysis freelancer for three years, mainly in structural equation modeling. With a degree in pharmacy and a master’s and PhD in production engineering, all from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Gusberti has obtained most of her freelance contracts through Kolabtree and Peerwith. “Most people find it difficult to analyze research data that cover multiple variables and involve associations and hypotheses related to complex phenomena,” explains Gusberti.

She also offers planning services for research designed to serve as the basis for public awareness policies, health campaigns, social issues, marketing, human resources, management, and other applications involving data on human behavior and perception. “Demand comes from both companies and researchers.”

Since the beginning of 2019, psychologist Carolina Abilio, who has a master’s degree in environmental sciences, has been translating and formatting scientific articles related to sanitation, soil and air quality, urban noise, and sustainability. Unlike most researchers, who register themselves on the Cactus website to offer their skills, Abilio was headhunted by the company via social media. “At the time I was contacted, there was a high demand for professionals to translate and edit Portuguese texts, especially in health fields,” she says. To join the network, however, freelancers have to pass tests to verify their skills. After proving their aptitude, they receive job offers by email, with the identity of both parties remaining confidential. “This is a way of protecting the researcher’s identity and preventing negotiations outside the platform, which can be particularly risky with projects from all over the world,” says Abilio.

To meet the demands of researchers in the state of São Paulo, whether working at universities or elsewhere, institutions such as UNESP and the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) jointly backed USP Multi, a platform created by USP to share microscopes, lasers, chromatographs, network analyzers, nuclear magnetic resonance devices, and other devices.

“Access to equipment is something that needs to be addressed worldwide, especially with the new demand created by researchers working independently,” says Sylvio Roberto Accioly Canuto, dean of research at USP. As well as giving scientists access to the instruments they need, the service also provides technicians who can guide and assist them on how to use them. “Our goal with this platform is to expand the interaction between research centers and society, which also involves sharing the data produced in the research,” he concludes.

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