The limits of writing for free

Earlier this year, and to the disgust of much of the science writing community, Jonah Lehrer gave a speech at the Knight Foundation in which he apologized for his misdeeds. He was paid 20K for the appearance. Lehrer, you might recall, is the bestselling science writer who recycled old articles for pay, plagiarized stuff, and fabricated Dylan quotes he used in one of his books.

That’s the first data point. The second one is more recent. Last month, Nate Thayer started a lively debate on the future of journalism by publishing an email exchange between himself and an Atlantic editor who asked for an article for free. See for instance this analysis by Felix Salmon and a must-read response from Alexis Madrigal. But the article I’d like to highlight is Ezra Klein’s “Revenge of the sources”:

The salaries of professional journalists are built upon our success in convincing experts of all kinds working for exposure rather than pay. Now those experts have found a way to work for exposure without going through professional journalists, creating a vast expansion in the quantity and quality of content editors can get for free. […]

Now, the people who were once sources can write their own blogs, or they send op-ed submissions or even feature articles to editors looking for vastly more content. Think about Brad DeLong’s blog, Marginal Revolution, or the Monkey Cage. This work often doesn’t pay — at least not at first — but it offers a much more reliable, predictable and controllable form of exposure. It’s a direct relationship with an audience rather than one mediated by a professional journalist.

Time for the third and last data point. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the “main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences”, declares in its funding guide (page 32) that:

Investigators are expected to participate in activities that seek to engage the public with engineering and science. Results from individual research projects may provide opportunities to engage the public through various forms of media communication.

In official terminology, this is Public Engagement, part of something called Pathways to Impact which is a mandatory component of a grant application. This guide advises the researchers – among other things – to plan a public engagement strategy, develop “an activity timeline or Gantt chart” (?), and “[t]hink about [their] public engagement role as one that is ongoing”. (On paper at least, this seems to go quite a bit beyond NSF’s “broad impact”. While “public engagement” is listed as only one way of fulfilling the “impact” requirements, in practice many researchers might not have other options available.)

In other words, academics are told to practice journalism for free – the same thing to which Nate Thayer and others reacted so strongly.

Science is beautiful and awesome, and talking about it can be one of the most satisfying things we ever do in this profession. I get it that the general public, having paid for our science through taxes, deserves to be informed of what we do. It’s also clear, for example from the proliferation of science websites, that there is considerable demand for science writing and genuine interest in the subject. More and more often, readers seek out the original sources instead of indirect reporting. They want to hear from the scientists themselves. I’m happy about that. I’d love to tell them about my research area and my own work. And Klein does have a point about the benefits of having one’s own public voice.

It’s a common myth that scientists need to be “sold” on blogging and public exposure in general, that they need to be convinced of its benefits, persuaded that they might enjoy it. The first problem with this is that I haven’t observed scientists showing any kind of group-think in this regard. Some ignore popular writing and the blogosphere, others are enthusiastic about it. The second problem is that, even if we’re already ardent believers in science communication, blogging and public outreach, even if we know that we’re good at it and that we’d enjoy it, it is not what we are required and paid to do. We have full-time jobs already. We do what we can in our free time, but sometimes we just hit a brick wall: there aren’t enough hours in a week, our brain needs rest after the intensity of research work, or (often) both.

I can only think of it as naive and uninformed when Klein writes that academics “have day jobs that are happy to subsidize the time they spending [sic] working for media exposure,”. (Then again, he also says that “anybody can write.”) I’m reminded, among other things, of Susan Adams’s infamous piece in Forbes:


University professors have a lot less stress than most of us. Update: Well maybe not, see ADDENDUM below. Unless they teach summer school, they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year, including a month over Christmas and New Year’s and another chunk of time in the spring. Even when school is in session they don’t spend too many hours in the classroom. For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few. Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized and there are minimal travel demands, except perhaps a non-mandatory conference or two. As for compensation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for professors is $62,000, not a huge amount of money but enough to live on, especially in a university town.

The “addendum” – “retraction” would have been a better word – was added after Adams and her publisher Forbes received numerous comments explaining in detail what a professor’s timetable actually looks like and pointing to blog posts on the subject. Just follow the links from the addendum or the comments; a quick google search should bring up much more. I’ve detailed my own teaching workload here and here, and my administrative workload here. It’s not getting any better, either: always more committees, more meetings, more reporting requirements, more micromanagement of teaching. I’ve been planning to write something similar about research workload and never got around to it, but this does a good job of explaining the baseline: we need as much time for it as we can get.

It’s often said that public outreach and expository work should be better appreciated and rewarded, for example it should count towards tenure, promotion and merit pay increases. I agree, but I don’t think that it goes far enough. As long as our teaching and administrative duties remain unchanged – or rather creep steadily up, as they usually do – any increase in the time spent on outreach has to come at the expense of time spent on research. And research time, at least to research mathematicians like me, is a precious commodity that we cannot afford to lose. Even if outreach gets me the same merit ranking, it still means less research getting done, and research is and always has been the reason why I’m in academia in the first place. I would add that if the idea is to get the actual researchers (rather than journalists or other intermediaries) to talk to the public – a worthy goal that I support – they need to have enough time to continue their research at their normal level. Trading one for the other compromises the purpose.

Which brings me back to Lehrer’s 20K. To someone in my position – tenured or tenure-track faculty at a research university – it would be teaching buyout money. For those unfamiliar with the practice, an institution can pay a certain amount of money to a researcher’s university, in return for having that researcher released from part of their teaching responsibilities. The amounts can range from 8K to 25K per course (as per anecdotal evidence), depending on the institution and the purpose of the buy-out. This covers the cost of hiring someone else to teach a course and often leaves a surplus which is kept by the university. For instance, an institute might offer a teaching buyout for a researcher to participate in a semester-long thematic program.

Suppose that the Knight Foundation or the Atlantic offered me a 1-course buyout in return for writing an article (a longer piece, presumably) or giving a public lecture. I’ve calculated before that teaching one course, here in the UBC mathematics department, is equivalent to 6-7 40-hour work weeks. With a buyout, I’d have all that time available to work on the article. I could, for instance, try to actually do what funding agencies love to ask for: track down a complete path from pure math research to the latest tech gadget and write about it for the lay audience. I could try to explain my own research to laypeople, starting with grade school level math background and going far enough that they would get some taste of my work. I could try to explain in specific detail how the research ecosystem works, how curiosity-driven pure math creates an environment where technological inventions and progress in other sciences are possible even when it does not contribute to them directly, how the activity of many researchers working independently and often in competition with each other merges into a coherent whole.

There are of course many writers out there who could write an entertaining and informative article of comparable length for less than that. Many of them would do an excellent job. But if the governments, funding agencies and general public really want what they ask for so often – for actual leading researchers to be out there, engaging the public and answering questions such as those above – then that’s how I would recommend they should go about it, and that’s how much it might cost. For there are no short answers to such questions, nor can they be addressed meaningfully without significant effort, without collecting and analyzing information, without thinking deeply and at length about both the substance of the matter and communicating it to lay audiences.

And why stop there? How about teaching releases similar to those for administrative work? Indeed, why not have a new type of academic positions, with less or no teaching in return for an ongoing and substantial commitment to science communication? How about splitting our time 40/40/20, not between research, teaching and service, but between research, science writing and outreach, and service? If we really want active senior researchers to speak to the masses, why not create positions that would actually have that mandate? I’ve said here before that, at least in the case of first and second year math classes, there isn’t necessarily a strong case for having active researchers teach them. There’s a lot of qualified candidates out there who could do it just as well, possibly better, and many of them are looking for jobs. (And yes, I would hope that they would be offered decent conditions, with good salary, job security and benefits. Too much to ask?)

I’ve seen my share of articles on science communication and I know what gets rolled out, so I’ll address two arguments often used to support the thesis that we should just grit our teeth and do it anyway. One is that there are outstanding scientists (often mentioned by name) who are also excellent communicators at all levels, which proves that this is possible and desirable, and we should all emulate them even if it means sacrificing our free time. To this I would respond, it depends on what the goal is supposed to be. If we are happy to have only a small handful of researchers engaged in outreach, we need do nothing. No matter the obstacles, there will always be exceptional individuals who will find a way. But if we aim for a broad platform of science communication where a large percentage of active researchers are engaged on a regular basis, that requires institutional support of the kind that makes room for it in our schedule – and not at the cost of research.

The other is that we should do it because more practice in communication makes us better scientists. To be clear, there are contexts where this argument is perfectly sensible and justifiable. The reality, though, is that there are many things out there that would make us better scientists (and better teachers, and better lab managers…). We do them when we can – for instance, I would include my 3-year stint on the Putnam problem-setting committee in that category – but we’ll never have time for all of them. Additionally, I’ve become wary of attempts to extract free extra work from employees (academic or otherwise) by framing it in terms of learning and apprenticeship, especially in situations where one can claim legitimately that learning need never stop because no matter how good we are already, we could always get better. I can (and do) go along with that on occasion, depending on costs and benefits. But as a permanent model, it’s neither stable not workable.

So, there’s the choice. We, as a society, could decide that having senior scientists engage with the public is a thing worth money. We could set up infrastructure that would make it possible. Or else, we could continue what we’re doing now, in academia and elsewhere: hiring fewer people, making them work more for less, and setting out unrealistic expectations.

For 20K, a science or media foundation could get a leading scientist to work on a popular article or lecture for several weeks. That would be someone who is immersed in research, knows more science in more depth than most journalists – even those with science backgrounds – ever will, and respects the basic principles of adhering to truth and backing up the facts.

Or they could just ask Lehrer.

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