Academic taboos #2: what cannot be paid for

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2017; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

what can't be paid forThe external examiner for my viva was not the person I wanted, who was seminal in my field, but someone more peripheral to my topic but who owed my supervisor a favour. For that reason alone, she thought he would agree to examine my thesis – and he did. Alongside core work for their own institutions, academics give guest lectures, seminars, and keynote speeches at other universities, act as external examiners for vivas and courses, review journal articles and write testimonials for books. No money changes hands (apart from perhaps travel expenses, or sometimes a small honorarium) and nor does it need to, because everyone involved is drawing an academic salary.

Favours are the currency of academia. However, an increasing number of people who do scholarly work are not drawing salaries. Some, like me, are independent researchers or scholars. Others are early or mid-career academics who find themselves without a contract. Others still are ‘stakeholders’ or ‘the public’.

A combination of the increasing casualisation of academia, the increasing accessibility of academic work through open access publishing, and the public engagement agenda, is creating an environment where institutional boundaries are more and more permeable. This is creating a problem. Salaried academics are expecting non-salaried people contributing to scholarly work to be content with the academic currency of favours. However, non-salaried people tend to prefer the real-world currency of money, as it’s much more use when you need to eat and pay bills.

This isn’t so much the elephant in the room as the blue whale in the bath. An article was published last year on the LSE Impact Blog, by three academics from the University of Exeter, encouraging the involvement of ‘non-academic partners at all relevant stages of the research process’. They argue for ‘a more collaborative approach to research’ in which ‘partners and publics’ will ‘contribute to the value of academic research’. They assert that ‘genuine partnership relies on respect and will produce mutual benefit’ without saying anything about what that mutual benefit might look like or how they propose to ensure the benefit is truly mutual. And nowhere, in the entire article, do they mention money. The journal article on which the blog post is based, which is entitled ‘The value of experts, the importance of partners, and the worth of the people in between’ also makes no mention of any of their financial value or worth.

In the Western world, a university education costs tens of thousands and senior university staff earn hundreds of thousands. Universities are wealthy organisations; most make annual surpluses in the millions. In my view, as someone external to academia who contributes to the value of academic research, genuine partnership relies on adequate sharing of resources. Refusal to pay a sensible market rate to non-salaried collaborators for their skills and input is, quite simply, exploitation.

Academics need to be clear about the employment status of those they wish to work with, and understand who they can and can’t ask for favours. I have been an independent researcher for almost 20 years, an independent scholar for eight years, and continually vocal about my needs as a self-employed person. Yet I still get requests from salaried academics to teach, examine, or speak, for expenses only, or for a derisory sum that equates to less than minimum wage. It is very boring having to keep banging on about money, especially when people’s enthusiasm for your involvement dwindles rapidly as soon as you mention a fee. When a university’s water pipes leak, everyone understands that a plumber will have to be paid. In exactly the same way, academics need to understand that when they want to engage a self-employed researcher or scholar, or involve a member of the public, that person must be paid a market rate for their work.

2 thoughts on “Academic taboos #2: what cannot be paid for

  1. Helen, you’ve raised an issue that is invisible to many academics and uncomfortable when it is raised. The existence of independent scholars draws attention to the great inequality between those lucky enough to have secure jobs in the system and those trying to make a living on the outside.

    Surviving as an independent scholar is like surviving as an author or journalist without a salaried position: extremely difficult.

    Over the decades, I’ve known quite a few highly productive scholars without regular academic positions. Their records were better than those of many tenured academics, but for one reason or another they could never obtain a position.

    Among the numerous “honorary” (unpaid) academics in my faculty, there are three main categories. Some are recent PhD graduates looking for jobs; unpaid or lowly-paid academic tasks at least give them experience and an entry on their cvs, though adequate payment would be nice too. Another group previously had postdocs or fellowships but now survive on bits of money from teaching and research assistant work. They are the group most exploited. Finally there are those like me who are retired with ample pensions. Some of us are quite willing to contribute without payment, but strangely we are often ignored. It seems that if you are not being paid, what you do doesn’t count.

    Brian Martin, University of Wollongong,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brian, thanks for another thoughtful and informative comment. It’s great to have your ‘views from the inside’ to supplement my external perspective. I’ve managed to survive as an independent researcher and scholar for almost 20 years now, but I know I’m the exception rather than the rule. I think some parts of academia are beginning to recognise our value, though there is still a very long way to go.


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