I was recently asked to write an entry on a topic I’m very interested in, for another multi-volume Encyclopedia. I’ve written about my doubts about yet more of these ventures before here and here. This one wants a 4,500 word entry, and because that is below a certain word-count threshold the only recompense is free-online access to the Encyclopedia itself when published. Effectively I’m being asked to work for free (see a previous related post here). As I said in my response, having written on related topics for other encyclopedias, dictionaries, companions, etc.
I’m left with two thoughts – there is an over-proliferation of these kinds of reference tools, often with the same people writing related entries for the different ones; and that the work that goes into writing them is disproportionate to the benefits. I note that in this case I’m being asked to write an entry that will simply give me online access to the Encyclopedia – that’s a lot of unpaid work I’m being asked to contribute.
It’s nothing personal, and I appreciate the invitation. But I am unsure of the point or the worth of this project, and certainly of being involved myself.
Academics do a lot of work that is not contractually necessary, but important and worthwhile. We should all make time to comment on each other’s work; referee papers and books; write reports on tenure cases and promotion; serve on committees; etc. We can’t do everything we’re asked but we can do a lot. We give our work to publishers for them to make money out of it, and rarely see much in return – even royalties on books are tiny. There are many benefits to most publishing that fortunately cannot be monetarised. But for something like this encyclopaedia, or other works of this kind, they are clearly designed to make a lot of money for the publisher, and the people doing the work are paid little or nothing.