When Should an Academic Write for Free?

Starting a better higher-ed conversation.
Nov. 7 2013 4:25 PM

When Should an Academic Write for Free?

Scholars should demand respect for their work. That doesn’t always mean demanding payment.

The old-model college professor could afford to write for free. Times have changed.
The old-model college professor could afford to write for free. Times have changed.

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Should writers work for free? What if those writers are academics?

That is a real question up for debate in several media outlets this past week. But I’d like to ask why we work for free and why we don’t shame organizations that expect us to.

The Internet has created a bottomless void that requires content. In a classic case of how expansion breeds stratified access, an increase in platforms that require writing has resulted in fewer outlets that pay writers to write. In the New York Times recently, Tim Kreider argued that he cannot afford to write for free. He encourages other writers to reject the freemium culture for the benefit of all who make a living by penning the word. In a column for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sarah Kendzior says that journalists may find it beneficial to write for free occasionally, but that academics should never do the same, even though “[p]ublishers like to evoke academics’ professional status to justify not paying them.”

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Kendzior’s argument might seem like backward logic: Why shouldn’t privileged elite academics give back to the public good by writing for free? Her larger point is about the profit structure of academic publishers, and it is a good one; but there is another argument to be made that’s more specific to the structural change of labor occurring in higher education. It is a reality largely hidden in plain sight as wars, government spying, and rising inequality dominate our national attention span, but the life of the mind is not the elite gig it once was.

Nearly two-thirds of all those teaching in colleges and universities aren’t the tenured professors in corduroy sports coats familiar from pop culture, inoculated from layoffs and depressed wages. They are instead adjuncts—who work on piecemeal teaching contracts for an average of $2,700 per class, per semester/quarter—and other non-tenure-track instructors. Even among the less precarious professoriate, there’s a push to dismantle tenure and replace it with term-limit contracts. Academics who write for free under these conditions are not doing it to prove their superstar bona fides. Many are writing for free hoping to build a career path where increasingly there is not one, doing work for which they have trained for a decade or more only to find an economy that isn’t much interested in paying a premium for expertise.

Let’s get this out of the way: I have written for free. My membership in the club of Real Academics is constantly being negotiated, but early in my doctoral career I wrote for outlets without payment. Like Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, I made my calculation relative to how I understood my social position.* I am a black woman with a non-elite higher-education pedigree. When you are at Harvard or Yale, you do not need much else to be considered an expert on anything, really, whether you have studied it or not. You are at an Ivy League institution. We assume you can comment with gravitas on everything from global warming to Michelle Obama’s fashion choices. Without those types of Ivy League status baubles, it is hard to cultivate gravitas. Contributing to public discourse is even more complicated for women and minorities, both of whom are underrepresented in both old and new media. The op-ed pages of major news outlets, which are overwhelmingly white and male, are gatekeepers to Sunday news shows where experts influence public opinion. With the recent exception of Up With Chris Hayes on MSNBC, the Sunday-establishment television punditry has been a near whitewash, with a minority view of white men representing the views of an America that gets browner every year.

Like many minority scholars, I accept responsibility for countering this imbalance in who is deemed “expert.” But, like money, it takes status to make status. And there are few mainstream venues that invite women and people of color to speak on more than “women’s issues” or “race issues” but on issues germane to their actual expertise in a field of study. In many ways, gender, race, and class issues in academia become pipeline issues for media gatekeepers and the professional pundit class. How can academics who already exist at the margins shape discourse that always comes first for women and minorities, and also buck the structural trend of publishers expecting them to write for free? There is no easy answer.

The economics of demanding free content, in a field flush with more producers than paying outlets, is a formidable barrier. So are the economics of higher education, which produces more experts than dignified, full-pay work for experts. Working for prestige without accompanying cash is, in the end, a Faustian bargain. But so too is hunkering down amid the crumbling academic labor structure, especially for minority scholars who have long been underrepresented and systematically denied tenure. For them, public scholarship can be less about exposure than indemnity. How do we expand access to these voices without further marginalizing them?

I no longer write for free … unless I do. After a solid track record of payment for my content, a local alternative newspaper approached me a few months ago. It is a nonprofit that raises hell in a conservative Southern media market. I like hell-raisers. I have, on occasion, raised a little myself. I also like insurgent media. This newspaper could not afford to pay me, something the editor said upfront. I gladly gifted the paper the content. I had published the original essay at my own website first, making my ownership of it clear. The editor asked for the content, rather than assuming that because it was on the Internet it could be borrowed without my explicit permission. He explicitly expressed an understanding of the value of the work and that he was unable, not unwilling, to compensate me for it. In short, he respected my professionalism and my work. That the outlet also shares my values made the contribution a no-brainer for me. Judging by the reader mail I received after the paper published the essay, it sparked a meaningful conversation about an emotionally laden subject.

My choice to publish that essay for free is not the same as writing for free. I had choice and control. How do we give other academics and writers that same kind of choice and control? Individually, we can manage our own spaces. Be it in the form of blogs or e-books, the adjunctification of academic labor and media means exerting control over what we write. And, as Kendzior argues, we should demand respect for our work, even if respect is not always indicated as payment. Withholding our creative contributions from causes and organizations that reflect our values does little to challenge systematic abuse. However, expecting that our work be respected and only valuing gatekeepers that respect us can resist exploitation. More than writing for free, it is the assumption by gatekeepers that one should write for free that needs to be disrupted. The editor at that alternative newspaper could not afford to pay me, but that he expected that I should be paid worked very much in favor of my decision to write for free.

Ultimately, though, systematic abuses require systemic change. With the economics of labor against us, we have to appeal to cultural norms. Children working in factories can absolutely maximize profit returns, but we’ve (mostly) decided that child labor is a moral violation. In the same way, for-profit organizations that abuse labor to maximize profits should pay a price in legitimacy. That requires organizing, agitating, and writing about the hard choices faced by so many—even if, on occasion, we write about it for free.

*Correction, Nov. 8, 2013: This article originally mispelled Ta-Nehisi Coates' first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a Slate writer and Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Emory University. Follow her on Twitter.

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