On turning down poorly-paid, limited value, academic work

I’ve just turned down another invitation to write an encyclopaedia entry. I agonised about it, and ended up posting about it on my personal Facebook page. The issue was in part the payment – £40 for 2000-2500 words. I’d be less insulted if they wanted it for free. I’d need to write at 400-500 words an hour, with no editing, for this to be minimum wage. (Yes, I’m on a very good salary, but I could only do this outside of regular hours.) It’s a commercial publisher, and the resource would be expensive subscription-only. The other issue was the topic – important to me, but something on which I feel I have done all the introductory work I can already. And also, the point of these things is presumably to have a range of views on the topic. There were a lot of useful replies from friends which helped me to think this through, discussing the insulting and inadequate pay, and whether there was something worthwhile intellectually in writing it. Here’s an edited version of my reply:

I’m sorry but I’m going to decline. I’ve written lots of short introductions on [this topic], including for another encyclopaedia, and I’d just be repeating myself. I’m unsure of the worth of such reference works anyway, and since I don’t have time to write everything I want to write, I’m unwilling to spend time on something I don’t. It might be different if this was either fairly paid, or would be available open access, rather than at high cost. I’m a little reluctant to recommend other people given the low pay for intellectual work, from a commercial publisher, but you might try one of the other authors of books on [this topic].

The commissioning editor wrote back to say thank you for an ‘honest reply’ and said they would raise the payment issue with the senior editors and publisher.

As I was putting together this post I realised I’d written about the same topic on this blog before: On refusing unpaid work (2013) and Work for hire (2012). So, why did I agonise about this one, instead of saying ‘no’ immediately? I’m not entirely sure. I think it’s the sense that someone needs to commission this piece, and they are working through possible contributors. I’m not assuming I was the first to be asked, but my ‘no’ moves this onto another person. As my reply notes, I was reluctant to give specific names – I don’t want to be included in the next request as having recommended them. But in part the issue is the proliferation of such things. This was not open access, but would be an extremely expensive subscription based source. The publisher must calculate that likely sales will cover the costs, and turn a profit, but that’s not to say it has a genuine intellectual or pedagogic purpose.

Relating back to the post I linked to earlier today, Veronika Cheplygina – 5 strategies for saying “no” more often, there is an issue here. It’s easy to say to busy/in demand people – “you should say ‘no’ more often!” But if you take things seriously, deciding how to prioritise, what to accept and what decline, and balancing competing tasks is itself exhausting; not just doing the things you end up with.

So, here are my criteria

  • is it academically interesting or otherwise worthwhile?
    • i.e it forces you to think about something new
    • or it gives you a chance to say something new or different on a familiar topic
    • or to write a popular or introductory summary on something you’ve only ever written about before for a different audience
  • is it going to be widely available at reasonable cost or open access?
  • is it really well paid, such that you could use the money for something useful (i.e. to pay for an archive visit, that really expensive/rare book you want, etc.)?

If none of these are yes, I think I need to say ‘no’ immediately. If there is at least one yes, then it’s worth considering, discussing or negotiating. If you do say ‘no’, but the task is worthwhile, then it might be worth recommending someone who might find it a good opportunity.

Just to be clear: None of this is about the kind of work we need to do as service – review work, PhD examination, etc. It’s about things that are presented to us as an opportunity, but are actually an imposition.

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3 Responses to On turning down poorly-paid, limited value, academic work

  1. Thanks for sharing your thought on this, I feel especially empathetic to the OA/subscription issue, having recently accepted one such proposal (encyclopedia entry for corporate publisher) – in my case, I thought this was too good an opportunity for me to be acknowledged as a voice in the debate on [topic] to refuse.
    I have a question? Why could you only do this job outside regular hours? Because encyclopedia entries are not considered academic labour at tour university or because of the “being paid” issue? (Which would.even strenghten the case for the need to get rid of the corporate publishing system…)

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks Simone. On the time issue the point was that I already work more than contracted hours, as most academics do. So to take on another task would add to the additional work. I don’t think Encyclopedia entries would be seen as worthwhile by the university, but I regularly do things that wouldn’t be seen as valuable by others, if I think they are important. The point was more that it didn’t hit any of the possible criteria.

  2. Swarnjit mehta says:

    An India you are on solid ground and your refusal to write the entry reflects your integrity n commitment.

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