Friday, March 8, 2013

Writing For Free: It's Academic

The topic of writing and compensation has seemed to become a bit viral in the past week or two.  In the pundit/analyst-sphere, the Atlantic took some hits from folks for asking for pieces for free or nearly free.  See this exchange between a freelance writer and the magazine/outlet and then see this piece for a good set of links.  In the book world, this has come up a bit differently.  Apparently, Random House has a few imprints that have new contracts that eliminate advances and ask the writers to wait for their share of the profits once the book's unspecified/unrestricted costs are all covered.  John Scalzi (who wrote the uber-wonderful Redshirts) is not pleased.

I see much merits in Scalzi's arguments and those by the freelance writers who feel exploited.  Yet I write for free.  I write a lot for free.  Sure, the Spew is free.  I have not set this up for ads as I don't expect to have enough traffic to make sense to advertise.  Sure, the academic journals we publish in do not pay us.*  I am just glad I am not paying to have my stuff published in journals--in some fields, the journals do charge a price for submitting pieces. Journal of Politics did that for a while--a nominal fee that was quite galling.  I would not expect to be paid to publish in journals since we are supposed to be disseminating our knowledge via scientific outlets.  Publishing is essentially a job requirement, so my day job pays me to write and to publish, so I get paid for my writing that way. 
* There is a big movement these days to ungate the academic journals, which I do think is swell.  However, as a sidenote to this Spew, I would just say that this would not really lead to heaps of non-academic engagement.  Our journal articles are written for academic audiences.  If we want non-academics to understand what our articles are about, we need to do other stuff, like blog, to convey our findings.  Non-academics are not going to read fairly indigestible stuff even it becomes free and ungated.
When it comes to books, I am one for four in getting advances (not the first book and not the new ones).  One could argue that books are like journal articles--disseminating knowledge and a job requirement.  More importantly, we academics are desperate to get our works published in the best, most visible presses.  So, we sell our work for cheap.  Not for free, as we do eventually get paid, but since our sales are so low (measured in hundreds, perhaps a few thousand unless we write about Zombies or otherwise produce a hot textbook) that the amounts are often very small indeed.  Kind of hard to demand advances if the book ekes out only a small profit.

How about the medium that started this conversation--online magazines (and perhaps also print journalism)?  I am cutting back a bit on how much I do for free.  I post regularly at a few blogs that are free, and I have a regular column at CIC which does pay a bit.  I tend not to submit op-eds to newspapers anymore since CIC is a good outlet, they pay and newspapers do not.  And newspapers are uncertain and take forever to get back to you.  I will occasionally write for free for an outlet if it has an audience I want to reach.  I just got invited to write for a military-industrial complex magazine, and it will be fun to send an uncomfortable opinion in that direction.

So, I do feel a bit of guilt providing free content at a time when freelancers are under heaps of pressure.  But there is a big difference between those folks and myself.  Dissemination is part of my day job, and reaching beyond academic audiences is now an increasingly significant expectation.  Still, I will try to be conscious about not giving my writing free to outlets that are likely to be exploitative (Huffington, anyone?). 


Circling Squares said...

"Our journal articles are written for academic audiences. If we want non-academics to understand what our articles are about, we need to do other stuff, like blog, to convey our findings. Non-academics are not going to read fairly indigestible stuff even it becomes free and ungated."

It's a fair point but I'm neither a student nor an academic right now and I still read academic articles. (I can because I work for a university in a non-academic capacity and have access to all the resources.) Okay, there's not that many weirdos like me out there reading journal articles when they don't have to but there's some. There was a time between graduating from undergrad studies and doing my MSc when I had no such access, which, in addition to being very poor, meant that I had to resort to reading stuff from public libraries, most of which are completely useless for anything vaguely intellectual (and what libraries we have left are being downsized or closed anyway).

My mum reads whatever she can find on the various medical conditions members of my family have and she isn't a highly educated woman, never been to university, etc. (not due to lack of interest but due to growing up poor and female and then having a bunch of kids). She's always had an interest in psychology and sociology and now she reads up on genetics, epigenetics and all kinds of biology. She ends up reading abstracts and previews of books and articles she can't access because these things interest her. She won't 'contribute' to the debates academics have but she's a legitimate consumer of knowledge and someone who would clearly benefit from more open publishing.

A guy I work with is interested in engineering and says that one of the things he likes about working in a university (he's an IT guy) is having access to all this knowledge. The list goes on.

So, yes academic literature is written for academics but don't flatter yourselves - the rest of us can keep up, at least those of us who are thus inclined!

Also, not all academic institutions have access to everything. I work for a fairly high ranking university and there are still plenty of journals we don't have for one reason or another (usually because the publishers screw institutions by packaging a handful of quality journals in with a bunch of rubbish and then insisting that institutions buy the lot for much more than the quality titles would cost alone).

Moreover, very few high schools have any kind of access to academic materials (here in the UK at least) but younger students should have access to this stuff too. I know I'd have been interested in it when I was 16 or 17. I bought and read Philip Bobbitt's Shield of Achilles when I was 17 just because I read a review in the newspaper that said it was good, so I was into that kind of thing. (I don't think I understood it, by the way, but that's another story.)

So, no, if all academic journals went 'open' tomorrow the general public wouldn't suddenly put down their trashy novels and magazines and start reading academic stuff instead but that shouldn't distract us from the fact that a great many people would gladly consume this knowledge.

The argument for open access is overwhelming. The only counterarguments I can even think of are born out of ignorance or cynicism.

Steve Saideman said...

You miss my point. I was not saying that stuff should remain gated. I think we should give as much access as we can, especially to folks like high school students. What I was suggesting is that we need to do more than that--we need to write stuff that takes our intra-disciplinary conversation and make it more digestible to folks who are not trained political scientists or economists or whatever. These are not mutually exclusive options but a complementary strategy towards better engagement/dissemination.

Anonymous said...

Ah, well, I'm a mere sessional, so despite a PhD, a well-received book and some lauded policy research work, I'm not even allowed to submit to most academic journals. The only research support I qualify for is literally, a library card.

I thought 'real' academics were renumerated in a way that balanced research (as demonstrated thru scholarly publication), teaching and service. If you're hoping to write on the side for more $$$, well it sounds like you have some time on your hands that could be spent on the teaching/research/service you're ostensibly paid to undertake. Or maybe you could help your TAs or grad students with their scholarly writing.

Steve Saideman said...

Dear Anon,
I am most confused. First, if your field is political science, I cannot imagine any journal "not allowing" you to submit. On the other hand, I do understand that you get no research support, which does truly suck.

Second, I think you missed the point of the piece--that I do write for free because it is part of my job.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

"If we want non-academics to understand what our articles are about, we need to do other stuff, like blog, to convey our findings."

I agree with this point. It raises a further question for me: As a profession, we do not do a good job of conveying what we do to the broader public. Do you think that if we did a better job, it would enhance our field's reputation?

Senator Tom Coburn seems to propose a bill to defund federal support for political science in the U.S. every few months. I think about that when I get approached to spend my time writing or talking for free about an issue related to my area of expertise. My instinct is that I owe it to our field (and the public that invests in us) to try to engage, although I can imagine that more public engagement by scholars could also backfire. Would you agree? Should we be encouraging more scholars to convey their findings to the broader public for free as a way of enhancing the field's reputation?

Steve Saideman said...

I think we can absolutely do better, but I also think the Coburn/Flake attacks have a lot more to do with what we do than the lack of public outreach. We research the behavior of politicians--these guys clearly do not want that.