Free Labour and Quiet Doubts

Those of us on the academic side of things will almost certainly recognise the situation: you’re sitting in your school’s Teaching & Learning committee, or a staff/student committee meeting, or something like that, and you hear the complaint from students that they should get more contact time.  Academics should spend more time teaching rather than simply doing their own research.  After all, they’re paying however-many thousand pounds for their education.

And you’ll’ve heard the standard rebuttals – and maybe even trotted them out yourself: that course fees cover not just teaching costs, but libraries, labs, buildings and so on; that university learning isn’t about hours in a classroom; that teaching and research are intertwined; that students benefit from being taught by the people who’re writing the papers they’re reading.  But I wonder if these standard responses miss something important.

Back in April, I was getting companionably smashed with some of my final-year students, and we were talking about what they were going to do when they’d graduated, and about possible careers.  One or two were interested in academia, and so a part of the conversation concerned what life’s like from my side of the fence.  Predictably, pay was one thing that interested them.  I mentioned that I’d made about £80 in total from the books I’ve written, spread over 10 years.
“And what do you get paid for a paper?”
I held back my bitter laughter, and explained how much you get paid for papers, and how much you get for peer-reviewing, and all the rest of it.  The students had had no idea that this stuff was expected of us, but not remunerated.  Why would they?  Indeed, isn’t it insane that we’re not paid?

I think that one gets an insight here into students’ complaints about academics’ priorities being wrong.  If they think that we get paid for publishing papers, then of course they’re going to think that we have an incentive to resist extra contact hours – and everything we tell them about extra contact hours being at best academically unnecessary, and likely as not counterproductive, will sound like so much bad faith.  After all, of course we’d tell them that a course only needs 30 hours of lectures rather than 60 if we could be earning extra money with those spare 30 hours.

What prompts all this is an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  It’s from 2012, but it’s started popping up in my social media timelines this morning, and Carl posted it on Fear and Loathing in Bioethics last night.  It makes a proposal:

If academic work is to be commodified and turned into a source of profit for shareholders and for the 1 percent of the publishing world, then we should give up our archaic notions of unpaid craft labor and insist on professional compensation for our expertise, just as doctors, lawyers, and accountants do.

This does not mean we would never referee articles free. Just as the lawyer who is my neighbor bills corporate clients a hefty fee but represents prisoners in Guantánamo pro bono, so academics could referee without charge for nonprofit presses but insist on professional rates of compensation from for-profit publishers that expect us to donate our labor while paying mansion salaries to their chief executives and top managers.

We could also insist that these publishers pay a modest fee to acquire our intellectual content if they publish our articles. To prevent chaos, our professional associations could recommend standard fees for refereeing articles and for compensating authors of articles.

Corporate publishers will complain that this suggestion, if adopted, would undermine the profitability of their industry. I will leave this question to the accountants. But I do know that if a factory said it could not be profitable without paying less than minimum wage, decent people would respond that it is indecent to pay people below minimum wage for honest work.

If a for-profit business cannot prosper without demanding huge amounts of free labor, then surely the business model needs reinventing. And if enough professors refuse to referee without compensation, the reinvention will begin.

There’s something intuitively appealing about that.  We all know that academic publishing is deeply dysfunctional.  The people who produce the papers, and who do most of the donkey-work to ensure that they’re worth reading, get paid (with one or two very minor exceptions) nothing; and at the same time, the price structure of articles militates against dissemination of research.  That seems to be unjust at both ends of the transaction.  In an ideal world, access to papers would cost a good deal less, and authorial labour would cost more – which is to say, it’d cost something.

One familiar-enough response to the demand for reform is that if authors and peer-reviewers have to get paid, that’ll put up the cost of production, which’ll inevitably raise the price of access.  I don’t know how true or avoidable that is, but it’s not incoherent.  A successful model would have to resolve that problem – though I don’t doubt that cleverer people than I could sort it out.

But here’s where my conversation with my students comes in.  They think that we’re paid for journal work already, and resent that.  Under the current dispensation, they’re wrong.  But they wouldn’t be wrong in a world in which journal work was remunerated; and that would make conversations about contact time trickier.  They’d certainly be much trickier if pay for journal work was more than a token amount, because the idea that we might neglect teaching in favour of churning out another paper on informed consent would have that much more traction.  But if we demand only a token amount, we’re effectively saying that people getting paid at a level far below the market value of their labour is OK as well.  Oh, and I don’t doubt that there’d be people working at certain universities who’d find themselves under pressure (a) to publish and peer review because of the impact and prestige indicators, but (b) to do so in their own time, or to offset that journal work against salaried hours, because why should they get paid twice?  I know that we all work evenings and weekends anyway, but this’d likely just exacerbate the situation.  It’d be legitimised if research were remunerated.

The point is that, whichever way you look, there’re going to be problems that’d need addressing.  This does not dilute the basic point that academics shouldn’t be working for free, because noone should be working for free.  But there’re two take-home lessons.  First: next time a student complains about research eclipsing teaching, the complaint might be linked to a misunderstanding of how academic works.  Addressing the complaint effectively should take that into account.

Second: the big corporate publishers ruin everything.

  • Keith Tayler

    In a digital age the solution is easy. Academics should refuse to peer review any paper that will be placed behind a paywall. Universities and their departments should create their own free online “journals” and/or just publish papers on their and each other’s websites. Given that much peer-reviewing is a waste of time and does raise the quality of papers (even in the natural sciences), I would like to see a more ‘publish and be damned’ approach among academics.

    As happened for a short time in the 18th century, the publishers’ copyright “monopoly” should be broken and given today’s technology this time it should last. For sure there may have to be small costs levied for hardcopy publications, although even here it would probably be easier and cheaper for libraries to print their volumes.

    You are right; ‘the big corporate publishers ruin everything’. So why not break them? (I can give some reasons why academics and universities do not want to break them, but I have given up ruffling their feathers on this topic.)