Academic Work for Free: It’s Indefensible and Exploitative, but We Continue to Do It

A professor at a major university wants me to contribute a chapter on critical theory to a new, academic-press book about progressive rock. That sounds great, right?! However, are you aware that I would be paid absolutely nothing for what would probably end up being several hundred hours of research and writing? [Update, March 16: The editor of a scholarly journal, who is a professor at another university, similarly wants me to do numerous hours of additional research work and writing to update my article about parody and intertextuality in the music of The Simpsons. I already researched and wrote that article and did numerous hours of revisions to satisfy the relevant journal issue’s editor and peer reviewers. That journal article would also pay me absolutely nothing.] You read that correctly: academia frequently does not pay anything for substantial work that is done.

My progressive rock colleague says it’s “somewhat defensible” that people with academic positions write for free. However, that work is actually considered essential to their full-time positions and to their salaries that are around three to five times more than mine as a full-time, computer technology, e-commerce, order support specialist. I earn $15 Canadian per hour, which works out to about $11 U.S. per hour. If I had my Ph.D. in a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math), there’d be other places to use my knowledge and abilities in a well-paying, full-time job–other than just in universities. I don’t, and there aren’t.

Scholars with academic jobs seem to think it’s reasonable for scholars without them to do the exact same level of work for free, because it might increase interest in their earlier work–such as my published books on the music of Rush and of Peter Gabriel. If it’s already merely “somewhat defensible” for full-time academics to do work for “free,” it seems indefensible–possibly even exploitative–to expect scholars without academic positions to do the same. In fact, in the sciences it is now usually the case that for-profit, largely-paywalled publishers expect scholars to pay hundreds–sometimes even thousands–of dollars upfront for each and every article they publish. However, doing hundreds of hours of work for free is arguably at least as bad as that, especially if you have no income related to it.

Book publishers, as well as the organizations and societies that run conferences and publish scholarly journals, should find ways to pay those authors who don’t have academic positions. It doesn’t make any difference if I would enjoy writing a new book chapter or journal article, or another conference paper or book or two, for that matter. I would, but I shouldn’t have to do it for free, just like musicians, artists, and student interns shouldn’t have to do work for free just to get their names out there. No-one went to graduate school for up to a decade to end up not getting paid for the work they do.

[Update, March 18: I have agreed to research and write the book chapter and to revise the journal article further. I have most of a year to do the former and about a month to do the latter. I still think it’s indefensible and exploitative to expect anyone without an academic job to do this type of work for free.]

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