In which I ask my due

When has good writing become such a cheap commodity that people seem reluctant to pay for it?

I still remember the first piece of proper science writing I ever did. The year was 2003, the place was Amsterdam, and my situation was bewildering: on the dole in the aftermath of an imploded start-up biotech company, I suddenly found myself with so many hours in the day that I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with them. I worked on my second novel. I wandered the streets and canals and surveyed the houseboats moored along the River Amstel, each with its own tidy garden on the adjacent embankment. I frequented cafés and tea rooms, stared at sunflowers, starry nights and nightwatches in various museums, searched for jobs in several countries. As spring turned into summer with no appropriate situation appearing, I saw an advertisement for a free conference in Utrecht about the dire situation of women scientists in the Netherlands. Bored and acting on a whim, I contacted the editor of the Dutch edition of Science’s careers website (the now defunct Next Wave) and asked if he’d consider a brief wrap-up of the event – no charge. He enthusiastically agreed, and a few weeks later asked me to report on something else. The third time he wrote to commission a piece, he said with typical Dutch diffidence that as I wrote better than most of his freelancers, he’d better start paying me. I was thrilled with the idea that I had progressed so far, and soon began to seek out further paid work – nothing prestigious or fancy, just solid bread-and-butter wordsmithing.

This low-key state of affairs went on for a few years, but escalated when I started working for a scholarly society in London. Although my job was to oversee their four peer-reviewed journals, the organization also had a respectable trade magazine whose editor was happy to train me in bona fide journalism and eventually accepted regular news pieces from me. Of course I didn’t get paid, because I was on salary with the society, but I didn’t mind because I was learning a new skill from a very experienced team. It was stimulating to work to such short deadlines, to scan press releases, to interview scientists, to learn the fine art of teasing out the opposing view. One of my investigative pieces got picked up by the Telegraph and from there trickled into the Metro and a few other outlets, which made me enormously proud. Meanwhile, on the non-news front, I was writing for serious money for other clients in my spare time. I didn’t need the cash, but it felt good to be earning on the side, even though I had to pay an accountant to help me discharge my now rather complicated tax obligations.

This was around 2006, when blogging was just starting to take off – or, at least, to filter into my late-adapting consciousness. I started blogging myself in 2007; although my free time was gradually getting swamped with paid extracurricular activities, I was happy to blog for free because, frankly, it was a blazing relief to be able to produce copy without the well-meaning interference of editors and subeditors. (I don’t wish to denigrate the profession, as I’ve been an editor myself, but there are times when you want to cry when your perfectly crafted paragraph is butchered into a stream of simple sentences forced together with no thought to logic, orderly transition, rhythm or – god forbid – beauty.)

Somewhere between then and now, amateur writing and citizen journalism became a thing that professional news outsets suddenly seemed to desperate want a piece of – although not, of course, at the going rate. Some ask for free copy; some pay a token. Fair enough, if you consider that amateurs are not professionals – but what if they’re as good or better as those on retainer? The lines have definitely started to blur. I myself am a strange hybrid mixture – the part-time journalist who’s been jobbing for money for the past eight years. Only now, my financial situation has become such that this extra income is actually necessary; in parallel, requests for my writing and appearances have steadily increased, meaning that the time that I have to write for money (including my own novels) has dwindled alongside.

I was inspired to ponder all of this last week when a prominent, high-profile, healthily-for-profit journal asked me to write a piece of front matter. When I asked if there would any remuneration – a fairly reasonable request, I would have thought – he informed me that there wasn’t (fair enough), but that none of their other scientist authors had had an “issue” with it (not quite so fair). Perhaps the jibe wasn’t intentional, but between the lines I read You, unlike all the other suckers we’ve roped into writing this column for free in a sphere traditionally populated by well-paid freelancers, are unbelievably greedy even to have inquired. Who do you think you are? Don’t you know you’re lucky to even have been asked to sacrifice your academic time in this way to increase the value of our journal so much that we can raise subscriptions even further? How, I wondered privately, would that editor respond if I asked him to do a half day’s worth of editing for free?

Yes, I was angry by this sense of entitlement, even if the comment was entirely innocent, and yes, I turned him down (although on the entirely true grounds of over-commitment). Of course scientists have always been asked to contribute to journals gratis – the primary articles themselves, as well as scholarly reviews, perspectives and refereeing. And this, I think, is not so bad, because such activities can be cited in our CVs and enhance our professional standing. But asking for unremunerated front matter is starting to stray into the territory of taking the piss. Not all journals get this wrong – Nature, for example, pays the freelance rate for news and comment, no matter who has authored it, and the broadsheets too are very aware of what good writing is worth. Writing for free to develop a portfolio and reputation is a great way to start out, which I highly recommend, but after a certain point, you need to start demanding your due.

This problem, I suspect, is a reflection of a society-wide reluctance to pay for certain types of creative content. A friend of mine who wouldn’t think twice about paying £12.50 to see a movie once asked if she could borrow a copy of my novel (£8.99) instead of buying her own – when I declined, she asked if it was available at the library. Others feel they don’t want to pay for films and music and instead obtain pirate copies. It is the same psychological reason why at the scientific society where I used to work, the journalists with PhDs were paid about half the salary of people in PR, marketing and business development who possessed only an undergraduate degree and years’ less experience. The subtext? Science and writing are for dabbling and “fun”; Human Resources is a serious profession worth paying for.

*Clarification added: I should have stressed that there are still times when I write for free – when it’s a good cause or non-profit organization; when the company in question has done something nice for me in the past; when the gig will help me reach a brand-new audience. And sometimes, it’s just when someone has asked very nicely and hasn’t made me feel like I have no right to say no.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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59 Responses to In which I ask my due

  1. rpg says:

    That last point really pisses me off, for what it’s worth. Yes, job satisfaction yadda yadda, but come on, you telling me medical doctors and lawyers and whatnot aren’t satisfied in their careers?

    Of course scientists have always been asked to contribute to journals gratis – the primary articles themselves, as well as scholarly reviews, perspectives and refereeing

    Well, yes. I’ve always viewed writing papers and reviews, and indeed refereeing, as part of the job. Papers is what we (well, ‘you’, now) produce, innit? It’d be like paying extra–over and above what they get at market–to a farmer for producing grain. (Bad example, Richard. The CAP pays them not to produce…)

  2. Jenny says:

    Yes, I have no problem with working together with journals to digest and disseminate primary and secondary scientific information – it is indeed part of the job. And I also, in principle, don’t have a problem with unrenumerated front matter, especially when the journal is not making huge profit margins. What I have a problem with is the attitude that we should not *expect* to be paid for the extra stuff – that we are impertinent to ask. When has skilled work become something that we are *supposed* to donate for free? And why? This I find interesting.

  3. rpg says:

    Yah–I’m wondering what opinion towards scientists that attitude belies.

    Mind you, it’s possibly just the flip side of scientists accusing editors of being ‘failed scientists’…

  4. Grant says:

    I can empathise with these issues from another perspective, as an independent computational biologist. (aka consultant, or whatever label people feel like putting on me; go ahead, I’m used to it…)

    For example I currently have a lead for ”possible future work” for damn-all pay in a new area. I like the area and the people, but there’s also that I’ve seen this before… usually with no follow-on. (On rare occasions it can be worth it, but it’s risky and I get to carry all of the risk.) There are the people who simply don’t understand (or care about) the amount of work involved in preparing for a potential contract/project. Then there are people, meaning well, who ask me for free advice on their projects. I have no problem with a few minutes of my time, especially for locals, but when it would involve decent time mulling over their data or project’s issues and they still innocently expect it for gratis I have to tactfully explain to them I’m not an academic on a salary. There are probably other examples, but you get the drift and this will be dead boring to you!

    While I’m writing: have you had trouble getting access to embargoes because you’re a scientist? (Perhaps your writing never needed that?)

    As for buying books, I wish I could buy heaps—lots and lots—at full price, but with a mortgage and all the rest I have to admit that I now I lean on the library for entertainment reading more than I have in the past, and keep most of my money for the texts I need for work. I still hope I get a chance to read the bioinformatics character in your novel, though! 🙂

  5. Jenny says:

    I’ve got nothing against libraries or lending books when people can’t afford it – my point was that there are many people who *can* afford to buy books; perhaps they eat out once a week (£20-30) or buy a latte every morning on their way to work (£2×5=£10) or occasionally catch some local live music (£5-15). They wouldn’t dream of asking for free lattes, or free meals from a restaurant. Yet they somehow fail to see that the person who might have spent years laboring over this piece of work and who is getting paid pennies for every copy sold might appreciate their support. Why? Why is writing something that people don’t necessarily have to be compensated adequately for? Is is truly that valueless, compared to a plate of pasta?

  6. Grant says:

    I hear you, Jenny.

    My situation isn’t the same, I know, but what I was pointing at (I think!) was that there is sometimes an attitude from some of taking what they think they can get (or might get lucky with getting away with) for free where they can.

    Looked at that way, perhaps it’s not that they don’t value the writing, or my advice, itself, but rather that they do (at least subconsciously).

    What’s annoying there is people doing in unthinkingly or intentionally. (Not that anyone really should be doing it innocently either.)

    (Clumsy thinking, sorry: feeling it out as I go along.)

  7. Grant says:

    ‘doing it’ for ‘doing in’, sorry; by this I’m referring to trying to get things for free.

    Should add, there can be a lack of appreciation of the effort involved; that much is probably true for most lines of work. (I mean this separately of the paying or not issue.) My prospective clients seem quite unaware that preparing for a contract/project lead might take weeks; they act like I do it off the cuff! I suspect unless people have tried writing they don’t have a real feel for the effort involved. Those in the industry, or who know otherwise better, have no excuse!

    I’d better leave it here as it’s the wee hours (again…) and I’ve let my readers down with another night without an article for them 🙁

    Thanks for the article; it strikes a chord.

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  9. Jenny says:

    Didn’t Radiohead do that intriguing experiment where they sold their newest single online and asked people just to pay what they thought it was worth, from 0 cents to whatever – and were incredibly disappointed to discover that the vast majority of their so-called fans paid nothing, or just a pittance? I think you’re right that it is human nature to get away with paying as little as possible for things, and it probably is done without thought to what such behavior implies about the worth of the commodity.

    In the case of journals, I am sure they are aware that certain forms of content typically are remunerated, but they are quite understandably try to save money by seeing what they can get away with. Is it exploitation if authors allow themselves freely to be exploited? This is the question.

  10. rpg says:

    I wonder if most scientists wouldn’t go ‘huh? We can get paid for that?’ and then the whole edifice would come crumbling down. And maybe subscriptions would go up.

  11. Eva says:

    I think I told you once that I had printed out your 2003 Science Careers pieces and found them years later, after which I realized it was *you* who wrote them. When I did realize, I had one of those “OMG, Jenny is *everywhere*!” moments, which people tend to have all the time. (Probably not you, because you shouldn’t be so surprised to find *yourself* everywhere, but other people definitely have this!)

  12. rpg says:

    PS Another thought experiment–what would happen if you started asking an appearance fee for non-strictly day job-related talks etc.? Standard procedure in other professions.

  13. Jenny says:

    I tried that once – because I had spent three entire weekend days, about 24 hours in total, researching my talk – and the person in question made me feel like I was a tiny piece of dirt on his shoe for even deigning to ask. And yes, they did have a budget (because they charge on the door and because their policy was to reimburse travel expenses, which I wasn’t asking for because I was local).

  14. Eva says:

    Some people do that. I honestly forgot who, but I’ve come across someone who couldn’t attend SciBarCamp because he only went to things that paid a speakers fee. I remember it was a “he”, but that’s as far as memory serves. I guess if you draw such a hard line you’d miss out on fun things, but if you go to *some* free fun things, then others will demand appearances as well. Hard lines may be easier.

  15. rpg says:

    Hrm. *makes note to ask upfront*

  16. rpg says:

    I think it’s not so difficult. I reckon if there’s something you really wanted to do, or believed in the cause, you’d waive the fee. And you’d say that’s what you’re doing.

    Fees, for writing or speaking, are to me like a thumb on the scale.

  17. Jenny says:

    Eva, I think it is a tricky line to draw but I guess the main thing I worry about is the negative attitude people transmit when you ask. I guess you can get a reputation for being greedy – even if your request for a fee, like Grant alluded to above, is truly because you can’t afford to do it. I deeply resent being made to feel bad for asking for proper recompense for a service that is obviously in demand, or they wouldn’t be asking in the first place. People should be more gracious – “No, I’m afraid we don’t pay” is a perfectly acceptable response. It’s the “how dare you” follow-up – whether blatant or implied – that I think is unacceptable.

  18. Ed Yong says:

    There’s an argument that we (by we, I mean bloggers) have sort of shot ourselves in our own feet by providing so much well-written content for free. The argument goes that such writing undercuts the freelance market because organisations see that people are happy to provide such services for nada and thus feel happier about paying less (or nothing) for the same material.

    But of course, it’s not the same material. There is a massive difference between someone being happy to write content *for themselves* for free (tick), and being happy to write content *for other people* for free (vigorous head-shaking).

  19. Scicurious says:

    Ok, first off, I paid $10 for the Radiohead album. 🙂 It was MORE than worth it, but I do think I paid too little.

    I feel like contributing actual scientific articles (the kind with data in them) for free, or even when we pay for them (which we do sometimes in the US), is different from other forms of journal content in that usually, the research is funded. So in a way (to me at least), the work and the resulting paper has already been “paid for”, by funding we’ve applied for an received. But I do think that we should be paid for other types of content, I imagine that many bench scientists just don’t think to ask. As to whether its exploitation…that’s an interesting thought.

  20. Jenny says:

    I think $10 was a lot more than most, if I recall the article I read correctly! (Apparently there’s another brilliant album just out, too.)

    I agree with you, and rpg, that many scientists probably don’t ask. It could be the first time they’ve ever been approached – or perhaps they are flattered. But this sort of writing does take time and effort, so I would hope more scientists would start asking – because after a while, the journals will realize that they need to offer just to entice in the good writers.

  21. Jenny says:

    Yes, Ed, agreed. Bloggers – and all non-traditional journalists – would have immense collective bargaining power if they simply stopped en masse writing for others for free. As you say, though, the patterns have now congealed a little – once you start doing something for free it might be difficult to break the cycle.

    Another factor is the impression that things that are free aren’t as valuable as things that you pay for. When I was an editor at BioMed Central, a lot of authors said that if we charged a token subscription instead of giving it away entirely open access, scientists would – perversely – perceive that its value was greater.

  22. Cuttlefish says:

    A similar discussion, last week at regarding online writing.

    A former student of mine, an artist, ran into this so frequently that she wrote a set of rules, including that an artist has both the right and the obligation to charge a fair price for her work. Those of us (yes, I include myself) who are not charging are enabling a situation by which producers of quality writing (science, art, politics, you name it) are taken advantage of.

    That said…

    I’d shill for a shilling
    But no one is willing
    To pay for the things that I write.
    I’d rant and I’d holler
    For minimum dollar
    But no one is offering, quite.
    A couple of euros
    To stuff in my bureau’s
    Sufficient for verses like these;
    Though some call it whoring,
    I’m begging–imploring–
    Come, sully my principles, please!
    If someone would shell out,
    I’d promise to sell out–
    My standards, I’ll keep in my purse–
    For now, though, I’m sighing
    Cos no one is buying…
    And all I can write is Free Verse.

  23. Jenny says:

    Wonderful! Thank you for making my day. Do you have a PayPal account? I might float you a few quid for that. 🙂

  24. Cuttlefish says:

    It was not intended as an advertisement, but freely offered (yes, I understand the irony); that said, my site does have a tip jar, and a book for sale. And you are too kind.

    Keeping this on topic… I actually did try the experiment of making electronic copies of my books available for free, to see if it increased or decreased dead-tree sales. Unfortunately, making them free meant I could not track sales, so there was an uncontrolled and unknown variable ruining my analysis.

  25. Eva says:

    I just realized you guys at OT should install Flattr: (micropayments for blog posts; people pay if they like the post)

    Go read up on it and then agree that it would at least be worth the experiment.

    (I sound like a spammer, but am merely in a hurry and wanted to share the thought where/while it was on topic. *whooosh*)

  26. CM says:

    I found this conversation fascinating. While I was in training, I wrote things for my training. While an assistant professor I was salaried, wrote grants and presented research–my salary and research funds covered this activity. Now that I’m not there, but beginning to break out again, missing the writing aspect of academia, without the lab and grants, I am faced with a completely different world. I find it interesting that me, as being new to this different world, has the same questions as the more experienced you (plural). Thanks for writing, and I loved the poem, Cuttlefish.

  27. Chris says:

    On a similar-but-different theme, I get annoyed by highly-paid recruitment consultants emailing or phoning wanting leads for jobs they are trying to fill. After responding with some contacts on a recent one, I wrote “As a consultant, I would normally charge £100 per hour for my services. Given the circumstances, might it be appropriate for you to donate an equivalent fee (for say 2 hours work) to the Queensland Flood Relief fund?”.

    You can guess the response: paraphrased “we don’t pay our sources, but we might have made a donation to the charity anyway”.

  28. Steve Caplan says:


    “A friend of mine who wouldn’t think twice about paying £12.50 to see a movie once asked if she could borrow a copy of my novel (£8.99) instead of buying her own – when I declined, she asked if it was available at the library.”

    You need to choose your friends more carefully!

    Having said that, authors who have their books filling out the shelves of libraries are usually in pretty good shape, and I think that libraries actually provide a wonderful opportunity for readers to “try out” new authors, so I don’t think taking out books from libraries necessarily represents the kind of “pirate” activity that you describe. Actually, I think in the end that having your book lent out at a library actually enhances one’s stature as an author, and exposure as well.

  29. Jenny says:

    I wasn’t referring to library lending as piracy; I was referring to illicit movie and music downloading.

    And see my comment above about buying vs. borrowing books, if you can actually afford to support the artist.

  30. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I think there are a couple of factors at play:

    1) everyone can write – or, at least, string words together – to some extent
    2) not everyone is capable of distinguishing between good and bad writing*

    Therefore there’s a sense of “why should I pay top dollar for something I can do myself?”

    *I’ve been amazed at the number of smart people who apparently can’t tell good writing from bad. For example, when a friend – a very smart friend, with degrees out the ying-yang – recommended an autobiography once, telling me it was “an amazing story”, I asked, “but is it well written?”

    “Um. I don’t know”, she said. “How can you tell?”

  31. Excellent points, both in the post and in the comments. I, too, find myself increasingly frustrated with the reluctance to pay for “content” — as if quality content is an afterthought! My Cocktail Party Physics blog is free. I get paid a small amount to write for Discovery News. But as magazines increasingly move to online content, those rates are going to have to go up, if the same professional level of writing is to be maintained. It’s a big problem. I don’t have an obvious answer.

    And you are 100% within your rights to request that your expenses at least be covered for a speaking engagement, and ideally also a small honorarium. Because YOUR TIME IS VALUABLE! There DOES seem to be this attitude, esp in academia, that if you have a salaried position, therefore giving talks is “part of your job.” I will say that often folks who invite me to speak are nice enough to be apologetic about the lack of funds (school teachers and such). But those that have budgets and can afford to pay, should pay. Period. That’s an aspect of this peculiar culture I’d like to see change.

    BTW, I bought BOTH your novels a few weeks ago. Just doing my part for a fellow author. 🙂

  32. Steve Caplan says:

    I do agree with with your comment about supporting artists–be they authors, musicians, or those working in the “fine arts”. In favor of this, I am often surprised at the number of people who really do want to buy/own their books, rather than borrow from libraries.

  33. Jenny says:

    Thanks, Jennifer! I hope you like them.

    Cath, I think that if a decent editor for a magazine, journal or newspaper can’t tell good writing from bad, he or she is in the wrong job. Meanwhile, I do think many readers do like good writing vote with their feet. Poorly written columns (or blogs) don’t tend to get any comments and are not followed to any significant degree. I’ve noticed, rarely, a bit of bad writing in the Guardian on occasion, but these columnists tend to quietly disappear.

  34. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I was thinking more of people commissioning writing who aren’t professional editors, and don’t have access to them. e.g. people advertising for writers on Craigslist, where the going rates are so bad you don’t know whether to laugh or cry… and yet some of the books I’ve read about freelancing suggest Craigslist as a good place to find writing jobs!

  35. Jenny says:

    Ah, I see. Well, I guess it depends on what the audience wants and whether the content is worth anything. I can see a case for people publishing a bulleted list of good points – if the ideas are valuable, you may not necessarily need them to be phrased prettily.

  36. KristiV says:

    I’ve noticed an increasing trend in my corner of academia to expect free design expertise, content (written or photographic), and update management for blogs and websites that don’t benefit me either directly or indirectly. The justification in part seems to be “Well, it’s easy for you to load content on the blog/update the website/construct and manipulate those little embryo models, and none of the rest of us know how to do those things.” I’ve also been told that I’m “lucky” to know how to do all those things. Sorry, luck had nothing to do with it.

    On a related tangent, an embroidery artist, Penny Nickels, who was upset with complaints about pricing for handcrafted items, started a website consisting of 5-minute youtube videos showing various craftspeople at work. There are several points to the project, an important one being that producing handcrafted items is labor-intensive and quite often tedious, and people should be paid fairly for the skill and effort that they put into such items. You can see the videos at This Is Handmade.

  37. ricardipus says:

    There’s a similar situation with photography these days – I am an enthusiastic but not overly skilled amateur, and even I get requests from all kinds of people who see my photos on Flickr. Sometimes these come with license fees, but usually people are very surprised when I tell them they need to pay me for the right to use a photo on their (revenue generating) blog, or in a newspaper, or wherever. Everyone thinks that since there’s so much “stuff on the internet”, it must be free. The parallels between the flood of photo-sharing sites and blogs are obvious.

    I’m not at all surprised by the Radiohead story though. Nobody pays for anything that’s available for free, for the most part. Sad but true.

    On the library topic – how is this handled at the publisher level? Does a library pay more for a copy of a book, based on “likely usage” of it? Does the author obtain a correspondingly higher royalty? Just curious.

  38. Adam says:

    If a science publication does not pay for copy, then the only way a professional writer can be paid for his or her work is through ghostwriting. In this way the publication receives free copy and both the writer and the named ‘author’ receive payment from whichever PR company has set up the deal. Many publications are entirely complicit in this arrangement, to the point of dealing directly with the PR company and/or ghostwriter should any change be needed in the copy.

  39. cromercrox says:

    I think there’s some historical context here. Many creative activities traditionally attract little remuneration, and to ask for such was seen as bad form. This is because such activities were done on a voluntary basis, or by people who had other incomes. I include science here, given that it started as a pastime for gentlemen and vicars who had other means of support. Your favourite weekly professional science magazine beginning with ‘N’ does pay for scientists to write copy, but was until recently (and maybe still is) considered as an ‘honorarium’.

    Thomas Henry Huxley, a scientists but not a gentleman, complained that everyone wanted his advice and time but was unwilling to pay for it – so you’re in good company.

    Every so often I am contacted by researchers from TV companies who want to pick my brains for tips and contacts. These days I ask them if they want me on Nature time, in which case I’d have to consult my line manager – or if thy want me on my own time, in which case they’d have to consult my agent. The caller usually disappears as fast as the proverbial hot buttered ferret down a greased teflon drainpipe.

    The subtext? Science and writing are for dabbling and “fun”; Human Resources is a serious profession worth paying for

    Don’t get me started. Oh, go on then. When asked what they want to do when they grow up, kids might say they want to be writers, even scientists – never HR executives. I rest my case.

  40. achillespubtalk says:

    Yes, without doubt paying the content creators their worth and value for every form of creative expression is now distinctly blurred around what is right or wrong. This is a far-reaching consequence of the digital information explosion, easy technology access, and increased user expectations of free and shared content. However I think distinctions need to be constantly made between providing your written or spoken expertise in a professional context where you should be paid and providing it for pleasure or creative and social networking satisfaction, through blogging etc. I agree with Jenny, the remuneration argument has got trickier, especially the long standing perspective of old-timer marketers like me that unless something has a cost to it then it has no value. Certainly I have found it much easier, running a consultancy and publishing business, to say no and demand reasonable expenses for speaking or providing written reports than when in academic employment. Only the other day I was asked to review and report on the benefits of a University developed e-learning package to which I said great – for a one day fee only. It was eventually agreed, whereas associates in Universities were expected to volunteer to do it for nothing. But Jenny, to cheer you up you will be pleased to know that your latest book has just been nicely reviewed for free by 51 Stories, a popular book reviewing blog on If it brings in a few more sales that’s some extra rounds in the pub – every little helps!

  41. ricardipus says:

    I’ve also been pestered by various people wanting “expert” advice, usually biological sciences vendors wondering what their next product ought to be. I take Henry’s tack on this – usually the suggestion of a hefty hourly rate scares away the non-serious ones. Unfortunately, the remaining ones are few and far between.

  42. cromercrox says:

    A celebrity dinosaurologist of my acquaintance told me he was (and presumably still is) phoned fairly regularly by people wishing to touch the hem of his garment. He told me that nearly all disappeared on being told that he charges $100 a pop. It was the only way he could get any actual work done.

  43. Heather says:

    Late, as always, to the part, but Jennifer’s remark made me want to react:

    “There DOES seem to be this attitude, esp in academia, that if you have a salaried position, therefore giving talks is “part of your job.” I will say that often folks who invite me to speak are nice enough to be apologetic about the lack of funds (school teachers and such). But those that have budgets and can afford to pay, should pay. Period.”

    What about doctors and the companies that underwrite their conferences? I can no longer count the number of professional settings in which I have given basic biology courses, often at the beginning of the conference, to docs from far-flung and fairly wealthy disciplines. Now, no real complaints – they are often in pleasant locations (wealthy disciplines), and my travel expenses are always covered. But never ever ever has anyone proposed an honorarium to speak. I remember falling off my stool when the Rappaport Institute offered me one to be an ad hoc grant reviewer (and that was awesome, and thank you!).

    So I think I’ll be asking next time. Me and money. The last vestige of feminine timidity. I should get over it. And indeed make the distinction between what is part of my job, paid for by my employer (this could perhaps fall in the purview, but I’ve never explicitly asked anyone) or outside of it. For that matter, I think I have never seen my job description. Hm. My friend Manisha Thakor would slap me around if she knew.

  44. nico says:

    Just to clarify that "your favourite weekly professional science magazine beginning with ‘N’ does pay for scientists to write copy" for the front half, i.e. the "News and Opinion" part of N. Everything in the back (Letters, Articles, Reviews etc) is not remunerated, and in fact authors are charged for colour figures.

    Generally speaking, it seems to me that anyone who actually produces anything tangible (edit a manuscript, treat someone, write good copy, extinguish a fire etc) is paid less than someone managing production means (HR, banking, politicians). How that fits with Marx I don’t know but it seems the old man wasn’t wrong about everything. I meant Karl of course, Groucho was right about everything.

  45. ricardipus says:

    Heather’s comment makes me think of another twist to the speaking honorarium – work permits. In many cases it may not actually be legal to accept cash for a speaking engagement – depending on your jurisdiction, of course. Case in point: my postdoc supervisor (a Dutch national living in Canada) was once invited to speak in New York. When going through immigration at the airport, he was asked if he was going to be paid. He, being an honest guy, said yes, he was receiving an honorarium. At which point he was denied entry to the US, on the grounds that he did not have a valid work permit.

    Yes, I know he could have simply pretended it was an uncompensated talk, but that would be dishonest and illegal, wouldn’t it?

    I imagine that in Enlightened Modern Europe(TM) you don’t have these cross-border jurisdictional issues, but I’m interested to find out.

  46. Thanks for the HT about, Achillespubtalk. It cheered me up in an otherwise frustrating day.

    Ricardipus, I know that sort of thing works both ways – an American editor friend of mine was recently (almost) denied entry into the UK because they found some manuscripts he was working on on the plane. It’s illegal for him to be doing any work in the UK, and he could have been sent straight back if they weren’t in a merciful mood. I’m sure declaring honoraria would have the same effect. Within Europe, it’s probably fine for Europeans or people like me who are free to work in the UK…but as for the non-euro work permit holders, I’m really not sure.

  47. Grant says:

    Late, as always, to the part,

    If it’s any consolation, I wanted to reply to a few points yesterday, but got sidetracked with the earthquake (all my relatives live there as it’s in my hometown). Today was still sidetracked by that and now am so tired from that and work than my head is falling asleep into my laptop trackpad that is starting to take on the shape of pillow in my mind’s eye… so if I ever do say more, I’ll be way later than you!

  48. I hope that all of your friends and relatives are ok…fingers crossed all is as well as can be expected…

  49. Ditto what Jenny said.

    I’ve been to Christchurch for a Conference years back – a nice friendly place. Have found it disturbing to see things I recognise – like the cathedral – collapsing on the broadcasts… but to have friends and family there, like Grant does is, obviously a completely different league. Hope they are are all Ok.

  50. Heather says:

    Grant’s blog has an impressive aggregation of multimedia information about the quake ( The link he made to the photos collected and posted by The Atlantic was quite impressive – some of the photos are iconic and have been widely circulated, others not.

    Of course, my thoughts also turn to the non-commenters just a stones-throw across the sea from me, who are also dealing with death and destruction that is much less well or rapidly documented.

  51. ricardipus says:

    Wow, that’s harsh! Pretty sure that wouldn’t be an issue going from Canada to the US (or vice versa), as long as you weren’t being paid there.

  52. Grant says:

    Thanks for the thoughts. My immediate family are OK. If the other large quakes are anything to go by it’ll be a while before I get news on all of my relatives, etc. (Waiting for more of the power to be restored before texting everyone.)

    FWIW, I was in a central city store at the time of the Boxing Day event—only M=5.1 but, shallow and very near by, almost centred underneath where I was—so I have a little bit of a first-hand idea of things.

    Thanks for your addition to the links, Heather. The Atlantic photos are good—large and sharp and one of the better image collections I’ve seen thus far—but, for me, the captions are vague; the local photos do better on that score. Not really that happy with one or two that show faces prominently on the Atlantic collection – moral issues, etc. Have just heard of reports of foreign media trying to slip into hospitals & that they’ve now stationed army personnel to keep the out. (Unconfirmed, but low behaviour if true.)

    Part of me would like to get back to science blogging but another (larger) part finds all the science tweets I follow a bit banal at the moment and the idea of writing on some other topic churlish.

    I’d better get back to work, but thanks for the thoughts.

  53. Joanne says:

    Very nice post Jenny. I don’t consider myself a writer, and you won’t ever see me working for hours “honing my craft” as it were, but I do get asked to write various places and I have to seriously consider the value of providing my time for free.

    I am asked to write scripts and film videos for people for their pet projects in the name of collaboration without the any clear benefit to me. While I am not a professional producer by any stretch, this is still my time and they are asking for it, along with my ability to articulate my knowledge of science, and, as with modeling, my visage, which has, in the past, absolutely earned me money. I get paid to lecture about science and I’ve been paid for my appearance. Why should that change now because I have created some free content out of a passion?

    I had to finally ask some engineers, who are not shy about stating, straight out, what their fees are before they consult, about setting some rates. This has been a great revelation to me. You asking is a good thing. It “never pays” to NOT ask, and sometimes I am pleasantly surprised with a “yes” and sometimes I am met with a silence longer than I expect, followed by a “no”.

    Like you, though, I will give talks, write, or create a video for a non-profit or a public school at no cost, especially if I feel others can benefit in a wider way. I have also done things for a larger entity that I know will bring attention to what I do or if I particularly believe in their mission. And, I will give time to people I particularly like. 🙂

  54. Joanne, I think the ability to articulate your knowledge about science alone is worth the going rate, let alone all the other skills you bring to the table. I’m glad to hear that others are grappling with this issues too, and starting to ask their due.

  55. cromercrox says:

    Perhaps if creative people made a habit of asking for payment, rather than simply being flattered to have been asked, other people would take them more seriously. Writing’s not an art, it’s a craft, like bricklaying, or plumbing, and no bricklayer or plumber would do anything for free, because they have to make a living.

    If bricklaying or plumbing were easy, then everyone would do it – and if you’ve ever seen the results of amateur bricklaying or plumbing (and the sometimes life-threatening results of amateur electricianing) you’ll appreciate that what you’re paying for, hopefully, is professionally excuted work by someone who knows what they are doing. It could be that writers need to get together – my friend Mr J. G. of Sussex, a popular science writer of some standing, is forever exhorting me to join the Society of Authors. Perhaps I should take this seriously.

  56. Nico says:

    I would argue that writing is both an art and a craft, both can be done in a hobby-like fashion (and some hobbyists are very good!), but if you are asked to do a professional piece, for a professional setting, it makes sense to charge for it. That it is pleasurable some of the time does not mean you can’t ask for remuneration.

    I have been asked to edit/translate articles before, and I do it for free for friends and family who know not to abuse my time, but I was asked once to edit a “short” article, poorly translated from Arabic into French (neither of my working languages), and 25 pages long single spaced. When I found out the length of the thing I directed the author to the SfEP suggested minimum hourly rates:

    The NUJ has a page for suggested rates as well for people interested:

    Didn’t make me popular, but at least gave them an idea of what my work is worth.

  57. Heather says:

    I’ve done the same, Nico! But only once. As in, I don’t expect to get remunerated for the dozen or so article and/or edits I do a year, but I expect people to ask me for \favors\ that are reasonable in the time they are asking me to donate. So, the approach was more, \you do understand that I don’t have the time to do this, but here is the contact information for professionals who make it their career to have the time for work like this.\

  58. editor_gal says:

    Three thoughts from an active journal editor, whose journal does not pay academics but does pay freelance writers for content:

    1. I think this is an interesting question in general. It is curious which things are paid and unpaid (i.e., assumed to be part of the job), without much rhyme or reason in many cases. To ponder.

    2. I think it would be delightful if we could pay everyone to write opinion articles (the ‘front half’ you speak of). Full stop. I wish I was in charge of my journal’s budget to make that happen. Is that the invariable passing of the buck? Don’t know. HOWEVER, in exchange, I would request that our writers turn in their articles a) on time, b) in complete and coherent sentences (and even containing a compelling point or narrative??), and c) following journal style (of which they are advised in advance and provided with copious examples). I certainly don’t mean to disparage writers in general. However, for many of the folks that I interact with, they are not professional writers (in regards to these points) and it shows.

    Perhaps this is a chicken-and-egg argument (if we paid them, they would act like professionals)? Hard to know.

    2a. Some authors I interact with tell me they are late with their article because they weren’t inspired, or they were still thinking, etc. However, a bricklayer (to add to the earlier analogy) wouldn’t get far showing up late because they were pondering the bricks – they show up and do their job and it gets done. But, in my own experience, I am certainly aware that my frame of mind can drastically impact the quality of my writing (much less whether I can even get something down on paper). Maybe that’s part of where the disconnect comes, in regards to why writing isn’t paid – It’s harder to have it occur on command?

    3. I check books out of the library, not because I can’t afford to buy them, but because I don’t want to kill trees and yet I like to have a physical copy to read on the train (I don’t own a reading device). Any suggestions for ways in which I can show my support for the authors anyway?

  59. Hi Editor_gal, and thanks for your thoughtful comments. On point 2, I think if you can’t afford to pay your scientist authors for material, that’s fair enough – what I object to is when the editors react as if free writing is the norm and asking for pay is somehow a crime. A simple “no, sorry” without the guilt trip would suffice. I personally think it would also be fine not to pay if the scientist were obviously not experienced and what you would getting is likely not going to be worth paying for. There is, however, a growing cadre of bloggers and other non-journalists with years of writing experience who are actually very good – capable of writing to deadline, to word limit and in excellent engaging prose that does not require excessive editing. Their output is arguably would be worth as much as a freelancer.

    On point 3 – “killing trees” is a rather extreme way of describing an object that you can cherish for the rest of your life. Do you, for example, have a policy of having no wooden furniture in your house? Having said that, I can appreciate that not everyone has the storage space. It sounds as if you have not tried an e-Reader – I resisted for years because I assumed it would not feel “physical” enough or constitute a satisfying reading experience, but the i-ink technology and matte screen is very compelling. I really do forget it’s not paper – my hand sometimes even floats to the upper right-hand corner and tries to turn a page when I near the end of the page because my brain is fooled into thinking I’m reading a paperback. And it’s a great way to support an author, because you are still buying the book. And you can go on holiday with 50 novels and it weighs less than one!