In 2006, I published my first article in an academic journal, a lengthy analysis debunking the existence of an Uzbek terrorist organization. I called my mother to tell her the news.
“Great,” she said. “What are they paying you?”
She laughed. Then she realized I was serious.
I had come to academia from journalism, which, at the time, paid people. Less than a decade ago, it was reasonable for journalists to expect that a corporation profiting off their labor would offer a modicum of compensation. Working for nothing—or nothing’s contemporary euphemism, “exposure”—was laughable.
I explained to my mother that academic publishing was different. Writing for money could potentially compromise the objectivity of the research. Publishing was part of the academic’s job, allegedly reflected in his or her university salary. Only the scholarly databases which housed academic work made a significant profit.
Seven years later, journalism has adopted the academic publishing model, only without the pretense of integrity. The 2008 economic crisis, combined with the transition to digital media, led to a glut of desperate writers willing to work for free—a practice that media corporations embraced and repackaged to novice journalists as “the way things have always been.”
Today media outlets making healthy profits refuse to pay the freelance writers who help make them a success. Exploitative publishers tend to argue along two lines: a fake crisis (“Unfortunately, we can’t afford to pay you at this time…”) or a false promise (“Exposure will help your career.”).
Academics are particularly vulnerable to media-industry exploitation. They are accustomed to writing for nothing and, in the case of adjuncts, to being treated terribly by their employers. Because academic work in professional journals is hidden behind paywalls, the prospect of reaching a wider audience can be enticing. For scholars interested in leaving academia and forging a new career, online visibility is essential.
Should academics ever write for free? Maybe.
Should academics write for free for a publisher that can afford to pay them? Never.
When you write for free for a profitable mainstream publisher, you deny yourself fair compensation while normalizing exploitation. You deserve better, and so do the writers who suffer when a fellow writer is treated as less than they are worth. Here are a few tips to stop getting screwed and start getting paid.
Unpaid writing leads to more unpaid writing. One of the cruelest lies of the media industry is the idea that writing for free is both obligatory while starting out and a proven path to success. The idea that writers must work for free presupposes that writers must be rich to work—an idea we, as a society, should reject.
It is also misleading. Claiming that writing for exposure leads to a paying job is like saying that adjuncting gets you a tenure-track position—and we all know how that turns out. For every story of success, there are thousands of exploitation. “You’ll get exposure whether you’re paid or not. So choose to get paid,” writes Joshua Foust, a prominent foreign-affairs analyst. Foust knows what he’s talking about: He wrote dozens of columns for The Atlantic and never received a dime.
Your academic position does not matter. Publishers like to evoke academics’ professional status to justify not paying them. But what you do on your own time is irrelevant. It does not matter if you are already receiving an income from your academic position: If the article is good enough to publish, then the writer is good enough to be paid.Keep in mind that your status as expert and scholar is helping the publication gain credibility. You deserve to be compensated.
Professional writing is not the same thing as personal blogging—at least, when it comes to money. Academic bloggers publish high-quality, accessible work as good (or better) than that of mainstream publications. But when those publications come calling, academic bloggers, used to not being paid for either their blogging or their research, often do not ask for compensation. They should. The difference between personal blogging and professional writing is that, in the case of the latter, a media organization is profiting from your labor—and if you are already a prominent online writer, they are benefiting from your reputation and audience. Get paid.
Do your research. As in academia, discussing money in journalism was taboo until everyone started wondering why they did not have any. Websites like the newly launched Who Pays Writers are a good source for determining the standard rate of a publication. Do not ask a publication “whether” you will be paid. Assume you will, and politely ask how much before you agree to write. Acting like payment is optional can end up making it so.
Academics entering the media world tend to move from one exploitative arena (low-wage academic work) to another (unpaid freelance writing). But writing must never be an act of charity to a corporation. Ask for what you are worth—and do not accept that you are worth nothing. Insisting on payment for your labor is not a sign of entitlement. It is a right to which you are entitled.
Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis-based writer who covers politics, media and education.