When Free Is Not Free

In case anyone is wondering, neither I nor any of the other contributors to this blog earn any money off of it. Although I would love to be compensated financially for my work here, I’m willing to do it without monetary reward because:

  • Writing for me is a way of thinking — putting words to a page helps me sort out my thoughts and develop new ones. Since I’m writing about teaching and other aspects of my job, I get better at doing what I do get paid to do.
  • I can share good ideas with an interested audience. And if the ideas I’m sharing are bad, I’ll probably find out that they’re bad, which saves me time and effort that would otherwise go to waste.
  • I’m learning design, content production, and communication skills that didn’t even exist when I was in graduate school. Given where things are headed technologically, learning new skills means I’m less likely to end up as the overly-educated equivalent of an unemployed textile mill worker.

Others do get paid for their blogging and my attitude is: great work if you can get it. They deserve every penny they can get.

BlogDanielle N. Lee, a biologist who produces the Urban Scientist blog for Scientific American, was recently involved in a kerfluffle about how — or rather if — she should be compensated for writing for another blog, Biology Online. The short story: when, in response to being asked to contribute content to Biology Online, she inquired, as a professional who already gets paid for her work on one blog, how much she would be paid for work on another blog. And then the person who had initiated contact with her on behalf of Biology Online called her a whore.

I’m fairly thick-skulled when it comes to social nuances, but it’s pretty obvious to me that calling someone a whore, especially a someone who is a PhD biologist who also happens to be a black woman with a blog that gets national attention, is an extremely stupid thing to do.

But the story is a bit more complicated than an idiot calling a highly-educated woman a derogatory term. Scientific American quickly censored Dr. Lee’s commentary about the matter on Urban Scientist, citing a reason that didn’t make sense. Then Scientific American‘s explanation for blocking the post changed, and now the post is visible again.

So how does this relate to me writing on this blog for free? Dr. Lee, in the video she’s embedded in her post, makes a very important point: a professional should define his or her worth, and stick to whatever terms he or she deems important. For Dr. Lee, it’s getting paid to run a blog. If she stops getting paid, no more Urban Scientist. For me, it’s the bullet points that I have listed above. I have a fairly clear idea of what my time here is worth, and if I stop accruing those benefits, well, that’s all folks.

But Dr. Lee’s experience demonstrates a broader issue, one that she references in Urban Scientist: even in academia, where only a person’s knowledge and skills are supposed to matter, some people are expected more frequently than others to give up what they regard as valuable and thereby redefine their self-worth according to the wishes of others.

4 Replies to “When Free Is Not Free”

  1. I’d echo much of what Chad’s saying here. I’m well aware of the opportunity cost that I incur from posting here (a hundred posts at half-an-hour each would represent time enough to produce several articles), but I value the benefits.

    Firstly, I’ve made an amazing number of contacts through this blog: getting stopped at conferences and workshops to discuss some point or other, being able to talk about whether and how this works with people who are looking to do the same, building more credibility as someone who is interested and engaged in these debates.

    Secondly, I’ve got other opportunities off the back of this. Requests to teach, requests to write, requests to collaborate on research: all through the initial contact made by this blog.

    Finally, it has got me back into writing. Like all of us, I have lots of different priorities and elements to my work, and it’s the research that usually gets it in the neck. By writing every week on this blog (and on my other, School blog (http://www.uniofsurreyblogs.org.uk/politics/ since you ask)), I have been able to road-test ideas to be worked up into publications, to practise the simple skill of writing and to build my confidence in being able to produce text in relatively short order (without the usual, lets-sit-around-for-a-long-time-thinking-about-it phase).

    That strikes me as a pretty good deal.

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