As an independent researcher I feel lucky because bad debt is a problem I rarely have to face. My clients are charities, local authorities, government departments, universities – all organisations with money in the bank and not much chance of going bankrupt. Of course that’s always a possibility, but people who work for private sector organisations or private clients are much more likely to find themselves owed money they will never receive.
Late payment, though, is a perennial problem that can play havoc with my cashflow. I yearn to name and shame, though I think that would be counter-productive in the long run, so I won’t. But I will say that, of the groups I’ve mentioned, charities are most likely to pay promptly and universities are by far the worst offenders.
In the UK we have a Late Payment of Debts Act in recognition of the difficulties that late payment can cause to small businesses. If you are a salaried person, imagine your employer told you, towards the end of one month, that they hadn’t got their admin organised so you’d be getting paid a month late. Not good, right? I cite the Late Payment of Debts Act on all my invoices, though I don’t think it makes much difference. What it does mean is that if I issue a big invoice and/or payment is really late, I can claim interest – though the amount is tied to the bank base rate of interest, which is currently very low. Sigh… But even though claiming interest doesn’t do much for my income, it does focus clients’ minds, so I think it’s worth doing from time to time, particularly with serial offenders. I have had clients’ finance departments try to refuse to pay the interest, but when I point out it’s a statutory requirement, they back down.
However, that is a last resort. There are more constructive things you can do to ensure you get paid on time, or at least as near to on time as possible. First, invoice as soon as you’ve done the work, or as near to that as you can manage. If you take your time about invoicing, you have less moral high ground to occupy if you need to chide your client for taking their time about payment. That’s illogical, of course, but nevertheless true. Second, keep track of your invoice dates and amounts – I use a spreadsheet. Third, chase every late payment as soon as it’s late, or as near to that as you can manage. Chase politely: I use phrases like ‘My records show…’ and ‘your organisation agreed…’ to depersonalise the message, as the late payment is very rarely the fault of the person who answers your emails. Ask when you can expect to receive payment, and don’t be afraid to chase again if you don’t receive payment or further information by that date (or a couple of days later, if you want to appear more forgiving than naggy).
International payments may take much longer than UK payments, there is no legislation to help, and it doesn’t matter what you say on your invoice. Payment periods of 90-120 days are not unusual. There is no good reason for this, and it’s annoying, but if you want to do international work you have to suck it up. Of course not all overseas clients will be late payers, but be prepared.
In fact, ‘be prepared’ is the cornerstone of financial survival as an independent researcher. You need to keep enough money in your bank account for six months’ running costs as a minimum, 12 months to be comfortable. ‘Running costs’ include all your business overheads, the amount you feel able to pay yourself, and your tax bill. That way, if you get a lengthy contract with long intervals between payments, you can keep yourself afloat until you get paid. That approach was helpful to me this year when I landed two good-sized contracts, both starting in late May. One is a five-month UK evaluation contract with two payment instalments; I have just received payment of the first, and the second is likely to arrive in late November or early December. The other, a three-year international research ethics contract, is supposed to accept invoices quarterly but I have not yet been able to issue my first invoice. If I hadn’t had a financial cushion I’d have gone under by now. So take heed, would-be or newbie independent researchers, and be prudent.