Sunday, October 27, 2013

At NYTimes: work for free? Or is the worker worthy of her hire?

At today, Tim Kreider urges the slaves of the internet to unite and rise up against working for free. (The essay is not about the recent and shameful conduct of Scientific American; go read Dr. Isis for that.)  Kreider protests all the requests he and others get to write/draw/paint/act/play music for free because "it's good exposure." What I learned from reading some of the comments is that (1) Arianna Huffington doesn't pay writers as a rule, which may explain why HuffPo has gotten so stupid and pointless lately and that (2) a wise man once told his neighbor, "A free horse is worked to death." Words to live by, wouldn't you say?

As academics, we do our "work" (writing) but not our "course load" (teaching, advising, etc.) for free , because it's part of our job and because it builds our credibility in the discipline. We're paid partly in the coin of "you should do this because you love it," something that the blogosphere has hashed out before.  It's a slightly different animal from what Kreider describes, but we still have to think about it in these situations:

  • Taking on an extra piece of advising, or a workshop, or some other piece of work because "it will benefit the university," says the administrator who is getting paid to convince you to do it. 
  • Doing administration or service and being paid in the coin of  genuinely believing that this will make your department better or benefit students, even though it counts nothing, zip, nada toward promotion and tenure and will take you away from the writing that will help you achieve them. 
  • Traveling to conferences to deliver papers--sometimes partially reimbursed, true, but necessary to do your job. 
  • Reviewing: not just student papers but grant applications, books, tenure packets, scholarly journals and so on. Worth doing? Absolutely--but there has to be a balance. 
  • And here is the one I'm most ambivalent about, in part because Open Access week raised awareness about it: Yes, information should be free.  Yes, information in journals would benefit more people if it were widely accessible outside the subscription databases.  
But am I ready not only to write the articles for free but also to fork over an ACA fee (payment to submit) that goes along with Open Access, whether that fee is $50 or $500? Can I come up with, and do I want to pay out of my modest salary, the $3500 (this is not a misprint; it's an actual fee quoted when I looked into it) necessary for the subscription databases to make one article free and OA?  Oasis ( says that universities will pay the fee, in some or most cases, and in the sciences, the fee may be paid from grants (
The Guardian ( has useful information on the subject, too.
Your thoughts?


Janice said...

A friend in the UK, where these OA pay to publish schemes are being heavily promoted by the government, says that the sense amongst fellow academics is that universities will allow or disallow publishing based upon their sense of what's worth the budget. Or you can open up your personal pockets, of course!

undine said...

Janice, it sounds like the double whammy of conferences: The university will pay for (maybe) part of one, but if you don't do more than that and tax yourself to pay for it, you're not being sufficiently involved with the discipline and will be downgraded accordingly. Judging from some of the individual U sites, you have to submit a competitive proposal to get the money to publish, so you get to spend even more uncompensated time writing a quasi-grant application after writing the article. I love the concept of Open Access, but the implementation is troubling.