Independent Research, Writing, and Financial Reality

money twenty pound notesEvery so often I post about how much money I make. As I’m just finishing my 2017-18 accounts, it seems a good time to update this.

I have written before about the difficulties the recession caused to my business and the bumpy road back to reasonable prosperity. In 2017-18 I invoiced for £34,338.54 of business, a bit down on the 2016-17 figure of £39,939 though that was partly because I took on a sizeable contract in the spring of 2018 but didn’t receive my first payment instalment until after my year end on 31.7.18.

The amount I invoice for is representative of the amount of work I do, not the amount of money I have in my pockets. In 2016-17 my post-tax profit was £14,057 – and I was able to pay myself a bit more than that because I’d had an even better year in 2015-16, as reported in my earlier post. In fact, 2015-16 was by far the best year of the last 8 years.

So it’s still bumpy, but the bumps are evening out, and I’m beginning to feel that I’m back on my financial feet (except when I think about my pension plans, eek, must do something about that). It helps that my mortgage is paid off, I’m happily child-free, and I don’t have expensive tastes. Also, I have plenty of work scheduled in for early 2018. For the first time in eight years, I don’t feel as if I should spend every spare moment trying to generate work.

Also, my research business doesn’t represent the whole of my income. There is also the income I derive from writing, which in 2017-18 was royalties of £1,663.70 from my trade published books and £306.25 from my self-published books, plus £268.64 from the wonderful ALCS. That’s a total of £2,238.59 for the year – though again there were outgoings to set against that: memberships of the Society of Authors and the Textbook and Academic Authors’ Association, royalties to Nathan Ryder who co-authored Self-Publishing for Academics, and all the books I bought. Altogether that comes to £593.48 and brings down my writing-related income to £1,645.11. Which is enough to pay for a month of writing time. I have to look at it that way, and not think in terms of an hourly rate, or I’d never write another word… if I wasn’t a writing addict.

Writing income is bumpy too. As my trade royalties arrive annually in October, I already know that they are lower in 2018-19 (£947.46) and I don’t really understand why. But I have a new book out this month, and I’ll have two short books out next month in the new series I’m working on for SAGE, plus two more next July, and I’m also co-editing and writing for a new series for Routledge, and have three other book proposals in the pipeline. The SAGE and Routledge books come with small advances totalling £1,250 so far, so in this financial year I’ve already made more from those than from the royalties on my published books. I’m hopeful that perhaps by 2021 I’ll make enough to buy myself out for two months of writing time. At that rate it should only take another 30 years of work to be able to write full-time, so it doesn’t look as though I’ll achieve that dream, as I’ll be 87 in 2051!

Sometimes people think that because my day rates are comparatively high, I must be rich. In fact, my day rates don’t only cover a day’s work, they also cover holidays, sickness and bereavement leave, time spent on unpaid but essential work such as admin and accounts, travelling time, business expenses such as heat and light and IT equipment and accountants’ fees and so on, and of course tax to be paid.

There are independent researchers who make more money than me – I know of one who is registered for VAT, which suggests they turn over more than £85,000 per year, but they work very hard for that, travelling all around the world for most of the year. That may sound delightful and glamorous but I can assure you that travelling for work, while it does have lovely moments, is mostly about trains, planes, taxis, hotel rooms and classrooms or meeting rooms. I like to work overseas, and could probably make more money if I did more of it, but once or twice a year is about right for me.

I think it is important to be open about how much money I make overall, not least because so many people ask me what it’s like to be an independent researcher. For me, it’s a terrific lifestyle, but it wouldn’t suit everyone. I’d say it’s probably as difficult as being an academic or practice-based researcher but the difficulties are in different places. If it’s an option you’re considering, you need to be as realistic as possible about the financial side.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $11 per month. If you think four or five of my blog posts are worth more than $11 in total – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

How To Get Paid On Time

lateAs 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.

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 www.researchprofessional.com.

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.

Why and How to Negotiate with Academic Book Publishers

poor writerThe academics I have met who write books seem to assume one of two things. The first assumption is that publishers are doing authors a favour by publishing their books. The second is that the royalties offered are a set figure. Both of these assumptions are wrong.

I suspect the first assumption exists because academics need publications so badly that when someone agrees to publish their work it can feel like a massive relief and a cause for celebration. Yet publishers would not exist without authors. Nevertheless, publishers are hard-headed business people, and they are not going to publish a book if they don’t think it will turn a profit.

The second assumption may exist because we live in a society of set prices in shops, set salaries and fees for work, and so on. The notion of haggling is unfamiliar. So you need to know that the royalties a publisher proposes to give you are generally a starting point for negotiations rather than a fixed offer. In a moment I’ll give you some pointers on how to handle these negotiations, but first let’s look at why it is important to negotiate.

Publishers often belong to parent companies that are very, very rich. For example, the company Informa plc has four operating divisions: business intelligence, academic publishing, knowledge, and events. Its academic publishing division covers the humanities, social sciences, and STEM subjects, and includes publishers such as Taylor & Francis, Psychology Press, Cogent OA, and Routledge. In 2016, the latest year for which figures are available, this division made an adjusted operating profit of £187.2million. Informa as a whole made an adjusted operating profit of £416.1million.

Here’s another example. The RELX Group plc is ‘a global provider of information and analytics for professional and business customers across industries’. This company includes the publisher Elsevier, which primarily publishes academic books in STEM subjects, as one of its four divisions. In 2017 Elsevier made an adjusted operating profit of £913million. The RELX Group as a whole made an adjusted operating profit of £2,284million.

It is evident that academic publishing is very, very profitable for these companies, and their shareholders. Yet authors, who may work for years on a single book, are to be content with royalties of a few hundred pounds a year – or less?

One reason this power imbalance hasn’t been important before now is that most, if not all, academic authors used to be in permanent academic roles with more than adequate salaries and time to write books within their day jobs. Yet, as we know, these days more and more academics are in casual and precarious roles, and have to write books in their own time. Even those with permanent jobs are often so over-worked that they, too, have to write their books outside working hours. Also, some people writing scholarly books are not in any academic role, but are independent researchers, unemployed, retired and so on.

Authors are contractually prevented from discussing their own royalty rates. However, I can tell you that the Textbook and Academic Authors Association conducted an anonymous survey of academic authors in 2015. They found that average royalties for print books ranged from 9–14%, and the highest royalty reported was 30%. I can also tell you that, in the UK, academic writers earn the lowest annual averages from their books of any type of writer.

Clearly publishers do need to earn money from the books they publish, to pay for their staff, buildings, printing, marketing, and all the other costs associated with their business. They also need to make a profit (or, if they’re not-for-profit, a surplus) to reinvest in their business and, if a plc, pay dividends to their shareholders. However, do they really need profits of hundreds of millions of pounds, from the often unpaid work of academic authors?

I believe we should be negotiating harder for higher royalties on our scholarly books. I have done this myself, successfully, with different types of publisher. Here are some tips. First, forget about feelings such as gratitude or repulsion, and treat the deal as a business transaction. Position the conversation as a business deal by saying something like, ‘As we haven’t done business together before…’ Second, ask for more than you think they will agree to. There’s a chance they might say yes, and if not you are leaving space for them to make a counter-offer lower than your request but still considerably better than the original offer.

The publisher is likely to specify separate royalty rates for hardbacks, paperbacks, and e-books. You can negotiate really hard on e-book royalties. Publishers’ costs for e-book production and handling are much lower than for print books. They don’t have to pay for paper, printing, storage, shipping, or returns. Also, they don’t sell as many e-books as print books. This means they can give more here.

If you get stuck on a figure that doesn’t seem enough to you but the publisher won’t budge, you can ask for a ‘riser’. That means after, say, 1,000 copies have been sold in that format, your royalty will go up by a few percentage points. This is often easier for publishers to say yes to because if they sell 1,000 copies, they have already recouped most, all, or more of their investment in your work, so then they can afford to pay a higher royalty. It’s probably not worth asking for a riser for hardbacks, as they don’t sell many copies, but it is well worth giving it a go for paperbacks, especially if you’re writing a book that is likely to have a wide readership.

Occasionally an academic publisher will offer a small ‘advance’ of a few hundred pounds. This is not an extra advance payment, it is an advance on royalties which the publisher will claw back from your royalties until it has been fully repaid. If a few hundred pounds would make a real difference to your work for the book – enable you to buy other books, for example, or to travel for meetings or to interview people – then by all means accept. But do be aware that it’s not extra money, they’re simply rearranging the offer.

Bear in mind that the person you are negotiating with, usually your commissioning editor, will not have the power to make the final decision. Keep your relationship with them as cordial and professional as possible, and make your case as clearly and concisely as you can, because you need them to advocate for you within their organisation.

In many ways this is the simple part of the negotiations. Once you agree the royalty figures, the publisher will issue a draft contract. It is a really good idea to get independent professional advice on the contract, because it will be hard to understand its implications unless you have specific legal expertise. In the UK, you can join the Society of Authors as soon as you have a draft contract, and specialist vetting of that and any other contract you receive is included in your membership fee. They will tell you which points to negotiate on, and how.

Does all this negotiation sound icky to you? Get over it. You are going to work really hard on writing your books. It makes sense to do all you can to make your books work as hard as possible for you.

Is There A Gender Pay Gap Among Academic Authors?

Kara and DorlingThe gender pay gap is much in the news at present. The BBC is under scrutiny following the resignation of its senior editor Carrie Gracie on the grounds of unequal pay; large companies in the UK pay women less than men; Iceland has just become the first country in the world to pass a law making it illegal to pay men more than women. I could cite plenty more instances. And this got me thinking: what is the situation for academic authors?

I belong to several Facebook groups for people in or connected with academia. In one group recently, a doctoral student in some financial difficulty – as so many doctoral students are – bemoaned the need to read a chapter from a book costing US$52. “Is this how academics make their money?” the student asked.

The idea that all people who write books are rich is a complete misperception. A few writers are rich, and some of them are women: JK Rowling and Jodi Picoult, to name just two. But they are not academic writers. Some academics who are writers are rich, but that’s mostly because they receive generous academic salaries. (NB: I’m not saying all academic salaries are generous. I’m saying rich academics are the ones on generous salaries, and some of them are also writers.)

In America writers are treated with more respect than in most countries. The Textbook & Academic Authors’ Association is open to members from any country but it is based in America and 80% of its members are American. In 2015 the T&AAA conducted a survey of 403 textbook authors which showed that average royalties were in the band of 9%–18%. So it seems there may be a geographic pay gap for academic writers, because this range is higher than academic royalties I have heard about from the UK. But there was no breakdown of the survey findings by gender.

My publishing contracts contain confidentiality clauses which make it illegal for me to tell you, or anyone else, what my own royalty rates are. This is standard practice in the publishing industry. I can tell you that one young British academic of my acquaintance recently told me, pre-contract, that they had been offered royalties of 7.5% on sales. If that person’s book retailed at US$52, you might think they would therefore earn US$3.90 per sale. Not so. Royalties are paid on the amount the bookseller pays to the publisher, not the amount the customer pays the bookseller. A book with a retail price of US$52 would probably sell to the retailer at around US$36, so the author’s royalty per sale would be US$2.70.

Many academic books retail for less than US$52. Mine are currently listed on amazon.com at $39.93 for Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners (2nd edn) and $33.66 for Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences. Some retail for much more, though they are often edited collections. For example, the Sage Handbook of Applied Social Research Methods is an eye-watering $490.48. I have never heard of anyone earning anything for contributing a chapter to an edited collection. It seems likely that books at these prices are only bought by the libraries of rich institutions. (At least that means students and staff at those institutions can use the books, and a few other libraries provide wider access. For example, the British Library in the UK holds copies of every book published in the UK, and anyone can register to read those books for free. The snag is that you have to go to London, which isn’t easy or possible even for every UK resident, let alone people based further afield. Some other countries have national and regional libraries which are publicly accessible, but again they are bricks-and-mortar institutions and you have to go to them.)

Some publishing contracts offer no royalties at all on the first 250 or 500 (or some other figure) of books sold. Given that some academic books only sell a few hundred copies, these kinds of contracts could result in authors earning no royalties at all. I can’t find any reliable statistics about sales of academic books, which is a finding in itself.

I can tell you how much I earned in total royalties last year, on the two books I have in print, one of which is a second edition. For 2016-17 I earned £1,236.70 in royalties. Earlier this decade, Queen Mary University of London reported on the earnings of almost 2,500 professional writers in the UK. Academic writers had the lowest average annual income, at £3,826, behind travel writers, non-fiction writers, children’s fiction writers and adult fiction writers, respectively. I aspire to become average one day.

So publishing is not how academics make their money; it’s how academic publishers make their money. But is there a gender pay gap in academic authors’ royalties? With the current secrecy around royalty rates, there is no way of knowing. But given the prevailing interest in the gender pay gap, I hope that next time the Textbook and Academic Authors’ Association, or the Society of Authors, or a similar body conducts a survey, they will ask about, and report on, gender parity or disparity.

Crowdfunding For Academia

crowded-390840__340Crowdfunding is a way of raising money, from anyone you can persuade to give you money, for anything you like. You can crowdfund for personal needs, projects, charities, disaster appeals, creative endeavours – anything from pet food to space travel. Some projects that have been successfully funded through Kickstarter alone include combat cookware, amusing rap songs about the iconic television character Doctor Who, and bacon-scented soap.

There are quite a few crowdfunding sites now and they have different USPs. For example, Teespring was set up specifically for crowdfunding unique t-shirt designs, though it now also enables the design and creation of other products such as beach towels, phone cases, and mugs. Unbound is for publishing books (though not academic ones, sadly). GoFundMe is mostly used for medical, memorial, and charitable fundraising, though it is also used by a lot of doctoral students around the world to help fund part or all of their studies.

Kickstarter is for creative projects, including those related to academia. Indiegogo is for innovations in technology and design; its links with academia seem more tenuous, but nevertheless exist. However, unlike GoFundMe and Kickstarter, it does include quite a few research projects. All of these websites take a small percentage of any funds raised, to cover their costs.

Although people doing academic work are free to use any crowdfunding website, there one that seems particularly applicable is Patreon. This is for ‘creators’ who can crowdfund per ‘thing’ they create (song, podcast, etc), or per month (which is more predictable for donors). Patreon is increasingly being used by researchers, such as Brian Danielak who creates free open source software for research; Asia Murphy who researches wildlife in remote forests (with great photos and videos!); and Kylie Budge who is researching creativity in cities.

Crowdfunding is not a soft option. Yes, you can slap together a web page, sit back, and wait for the donations to roll in. But if you do that, they won’t. For any chance of success, you need an appealing offer, a well-made fundraising page, healthy personal and professional networks, and no shame at all about asking people for money, over and over again. On Patreon, your offer is made up of goals and rewards. Goals need to be intriguing and credible, and rewards need to be enticing (to potential fundraisers), achievable (for you), and ongoing rather than one-offs, with at least one reward per year even for people who fund you at the lowest level. This all takes a lot of thought and research. Then, once you have your page up, you need to promote, promote, promote.

Talking of which: I am launching my own Patreon page this very day! I am lucky to have a great mentor for this project, Jonathan O’Donnell of RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He is currently doing a PhD in academic crowdfunding, and will be producing a guide to this in due course. If you appreciate my blog, please consider supporting me for one dollar per month – or more, if you wish. Whether or not you think you might want to support me, I’d be grateful if you could take a look at my page. All feedback welcome, either here or there. Thank you.

Let’s Talk About The Money

cashbox-1642989__340As the end of the financial year is imminent, it seems a good time to talk about money. Turns out I had a bumper year in 2015/16: my company made a profit of over £36,000. That’s the most this decade. Part of the reason was I won a good-sized research contract, which is the first time that’s happened in this decade. I won a lot of work in the 2000s, and did a fair bit of sub-contracting too, but since the change of government in 2010 I’ve mostly been the sub-contractee. Which is fine by me, actually; it’s a lot less hassle, and I like working in teams.

When you run your own business, one year’s profit doesn’t tell the whole story. You need to look at the last five years to get a sense of where you’re at financially. My worst years were 2011 and 2012, and those are now receding into the distance, thank goodness. Here are my profit figures for the last five years:

2016: £36,168
2015: £8,594
2014: £26,939
2013: £12,357
2012: £5,261

The profit on a business does not constitute your income, because you have to pay tax. I’m happy about this because I appreciate the public services they fund (though I wish more would be spent on schools and hospitals, and less on armaments and wars, but that’s a discussion for another time). Here’s the tax I’ve paid on the profits above:

2016: £7,271
2015: £1,719
2014: £5,316
2013: £2,486
2012: £0

This is corporation tax, not income tax. I also pay tax on my income, but nowhere near as much, because my income is quite small. It’s usually a few hundred pounds (I would give the actual figures but I haven’t kept records).

To really get a sense of the full story, we need to look at the averages of these figures. The average profit my business has made over the last five years is £17,862, and the average tax I’ve paid over the last five years is £2,491. So, on average, I’ve had a surplus of around £15,000. From this, I have to put money aside for business expenses such as professional subscriptions and training/conference costs (so now you probably understand why I am rarely able to pay for conferences). Then I can give myself an income.

Through 2011-13 I paid myself very little from the business, but since late 2013 I’ve been able to pay myself £1,000 per month. This provides me with a comfortable living, mainly because I’ve paid off my mortgage, don’t have children, do have a partner who earns a similar amount, and am happy to live fairly cheaply.

It’s strange to see that the odd numbered years are less lucrative than the even numbered years. If I wasn’t a fan of empirical methods, I’d probably start reading something into that, especially as 2017 looks set to follow the pattern.

I’m sure some independent researchers make more money than me, and I’m equally sure others make less. I could probably earn more if I chased work harder, but I like writing books. This means that as long as I have enough work to keep me going, I don’t chase moStreet harbour-wardsre work, instead I spend my time writing. And the books are beginning to yield something of an income, after six years of hard graft; I can now rely on a four-figure sum arriving each year, and that’s a month’s money, maybe two months this year if I’m lucky.

We don’t talk about money much, but I think we need to, because this is the reality behind our high day rates. I’m not complaining, though; quite the reverse. I feel very lucky that I can support myself by doing the work I love. And I can even afford holidays. Right now I’m in the Canary Islands having a wonderful time, and not missing the British March weather at all!

How To Become An Indie Ally

cat-and-dogCalling academics! Do you want to be a useful ally to independent researchers? Then here’s how you can. No, wait, let’s start with why it’s a good idea. Independent researchers can add considerable value to academic research and teaching projects. We bring a fresh perspective, which can be useful to help disentangle problems that seem entrenched, or simply to provide a new view of a situation. We have time to think, because we don’t have to tangle with time-consuming internal meetings and university bureaucracy. And we are not limited in what we work on by managerial directives or departmental policy. Also, we are flexible and can sometimes help out at short notice, such as when a colleague has an unexpected leave of absence at a crucial stage in a project. One potential downside is that an indie researcher is unlikely to have the depth of knowledge in any one subject of a professor who has spent decades studying a single area. On the other other hand, indie researchers often bring a breadth of knowledge across several related areas, and are skilled in bringing themselves up-to-date fast in any area they haven’t worked on for a while.

Another reason it might be a good idea to support independent researchers is that, as the options for tenure in academia decrease, the likelihood of any academic ending up as an indie increases. So supporting indie researchers and scholars may prove to be an investment in your own future. An academic of my acquaintance told me recently that she wonders why staff at her post-92 university are regularly asked to give free support to universities in the much richer Russell Group (another structural faultline of academic inequality). She has decided to stop offering free training to other universities, whatever their grouping, because it affects the market for independent workers. Be like her!

So those are some reasons why it’s a good idea to use indie researchers; now let’s look at how they can be used. The three main ways academic departments use indie researchers are: as part of a team on a funded research project; to augment a teaching programme; or to fill gaps in capacity. Of course there are many other ways, from delivering a single class or seminar to providing years of doctoral supervision.

Here’s how to help make that happen.

  1. Get to know your local indie researchers and/or the indie researchers who work in your field. This way, when you need some help in a hurry, you’ll have an existing relationship as a springboard.
  1. Be mindful that indie researchers don’t receive a salary; nobody is paying for their time. Any decent indie researcher should be willing to come to an exploratory meeting without expecting to be paid. However, it will be helpful if you can acknowledge the imbalance: you are drawing a salary for your time at that meeting; they are not. It will be even more helpful if you can at least reimburse their travel expenses, and maybe give them lunch. Please do not expect an indie researcher to come to more than one meeting without recompense. Some academics still think it’s OK to ask an indie to run a workshop, speak at a conference, and write a chapter for an edited collection. A salaried academic could say ‘yes’ to all of those without pausing for breath, even though the tasks probably require 2-3 weeks of full-time work to complete. If you’re not paying an indie, you’re asking them to do that in their own time. That’s equivalent to asking a salaried academic to work on a dozen consecutive Sundays. If the latter would give you pause, so should the former.
  1. Understand how independent researchers’ day rates work. These day rates look high, but at times we go for weeks or months with no paid work, and we have none of the benefits of employment such as holiday pay or sick pay or conference budgets. For example, I charge universities £800 per day and in 2015-16 I was able to pay myself £17,000 – around one-third of what I would be taking home if I’d spent the last 17 years in academia. In the last five years, I’ve had two good years and three lean years. There are other compensations to the indie lifestyle so this is not intended as a sob story. But it’s surprising how many intelligent people still think ‘high day rate’ equals ‘rich person’.
  1. If you really can’t pay an independent researcher, but you want them to work with you, think about what you can offer them in exchange for their skills and labour. They might be glad to have use of your library, an honorary position with access to paywalled journals, or a free place on a professional training course. Most indie researchers are open to barter as long as you can offer something that is of value to them. What won’t be of value is ‘exposure’, because in these days of social media we can all expose ourselves.
  1. Where appropriate, allocate time and costs in your funding bids for input from one or more independent researchers. This sends a positive message to funders: it shows that you are thinking beyond the walls of the academy and taking a creative approach to your bid and your project design. Any credible independent researcher who you plan to include should be willing to put in some unpaid desk work up front, perhaps to write a section of the bid or to give feedback on a draft.
  1. Raise awareness among your colleagues of the value, and support needs, of independent researchers. If you have the contacts, and want to earn serious brownie points from the indies in your networks and beyond, lobby for indie researchers to have access to research funding.

One caveat: it is important to perform due diligence. Ask for a CV, with references; follow up the references, and spot-check a couple of items from the CV. If the independent researcher hasn’t been independent for long, it would be worth quizzing them about their intentions. Due to the economic climate and the casualisation of academic work, some people are setting up as independent researchers in the hope of earning a few quid while they’re searching for salaried employment. It won’t help your research plan if, by the time you secure funding for your three-year project, your nominated indie researcher is now a full-time lecturer at the other end of the country.

I hosted a lively Twitterchat about independent research for #ecrchat on 24 February, and was hoping to link to the resulting Storify from this post but technical problems have intervened. If we are able to storify the chat in future I’ll include the link here. I was also hoping to refer to the Storify for any points I may have missed, as I’m not at all sure the above list is exhaustive, so if you have any points to add, please include them in the comments below.

University bureaucracy needs to sort itself out

bureaucracy

Photo credit: Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

Now and again, I come across an academic bureaucrat who wants to help people find ways to solve problems. More often, sad to say, I encounter jobsworths for whom ‘the system’ seems to be all-important. I know my colleagues in academia expend a lot of time, effort, and frustration on their interactions with academic bureaucracy. This can often get in the way of what should be simple, straightforward transactions, such as paying people for work that a university department needs – or paying people for work they have already done.

 

I was recently asked, by a Professor of my acquaintance, to teach a research methods module for his doctoral students. The Prof explained that this would involve one day of teaching per month for six months. I agreed to do this, and to accept the university’s sessional teaching rate rather than charging my usual, considerably higher, day rate, because his budget was limited. I figured the work would be interesting, something new on my CV, and I knew he really needed my help. But then, when we’d already had a planning meeting, the bureaucrats said I had to join the payroll, to become a part-time employee of the university, rather than invoicing for my work in the usual way. One day per month is nowhere near even a 0.1 post, and the work this would have caused my accountant – and the resulting costs to me – made it completely uneconomic to take the job. The really bizarre part is that I had worked for this university before; I was set up on their system as a supplier; and I had done tasks of longer duration for which I had invoiced and they had paid quite happily. There seemed no sense in their refusal, and I know the Professor pleaded – it made his life particularly difficult as the refusal came so late in the day. But they were obdurate. So he had a more demanding and stressful semester, and his students didn’t get the benefit of a different teacher.

Some months ago, an academic I had never heard of contacted me out of the blue to ask me to take up a Fellowship at her department. This was a comparatively new department, set up with millions of pounds of funding from a research council, at a university that is in excellent financial health. They are doing interesting work, but I said a polite ‘no, thank you’ because they were looking for a significant time commitment and I don’t do unpaid work for wealthy organisations. She had a chat with the head of department, and emailed to say they could pay me: not my usual day rate, but an amount worth getting out of bed for. If I was still interested, she said, I should seek a sponsor from among the department’s staff, all of whom were aware of the sponsorship scheme for the department’s Fellowships and would understand that their primary role was to help with the bureaucracy. The first person I approached said they had never heard of the sponsorship scheme, which was embarrassing, and – when he realised about the bureaucratic requirements – decided he didn’t want to sponsor me. The second person didn’t reply to my email; the third replied enthusiastically saying ‘yes of course, carry on’, so I emailed again explaining about the bureaucracy, and heard no more. With the fourth person – someone I knew slightly from other arenas – I struck lucky: being fairly senior in the department, they actually did know about the sponsorship scheme and what it entailed, and they were enthusiastic about working with me. However, after a few days, that person emailed me and said oops, sorry, actually we can’t pay you after all, there’s been a problem with the bureaucracy. So that was several months of effort down the drain.

It’s not only independent researchers who are at the sharp end of this kind of bureaucratically induced misery, but also casual staff. An academic who I met online recently had a problem with a post-doc who was working for him and had employed a research assistant. The RA started work very late in the contract, which was partly due to bureaucratic difficulties, and ended up working more hours after the end of the grant period so they were owed money. In the meantime, the post-doc had moved to a second university, with another grant which included funds to pay the RA. However, the second university would not issue a contract because the amount of money concerned was too small, while the original university would not raise an invoice without a contract. So the RA ended up having to invoice the second university themselves. That meant the RA had to declare those earnings as self-employment for that tax year, with all the attendant hassle of completing a self-assessment form: a classic example of bureaucracy generating bureaucracy.

These are just three sad and sorry cases of bureaucracy impeding effective academic work. I am sure most, if not all, of my readers will have their own examples to share. I know it doesn’t have to be this way, from work I have done with universities where bureaucratic systems have supported and enabled, rather than obstructing, academic work. Perhaps that’s why I, and others I know, find bureaucratic impediments so very frustrating. We know they don’t have to be there – but they are there, and at times, for unfathomable reasons, they’re insurmountable.

New Year’s Resolution: Open Access Only

open-doorHappy New Year, all my lovely readers! I hope you’ve had a wonderful break and that any resolutions you may have made are the life-enhancing rather than the punitive kind.

My resolution for 2017 is that from now on, I will only write academic articles in my own time for open-access journals. If someone wants to pay me to write an academic article, then I’ll be open to submitting that article to a journal of their choice. (It has happened once in my life, so far.) But otherwise I’m going OA.

I can’t afford to do that with books, as I’m finding that academic self-publishing doesn’t pay, while academic traditional publishing does, a bit. (My trad pub royalties for the year 2015-16 finally broke four figures, which felt GREAT.  The actual figure was £1,627.20 which is a month’s money for me. Though it did take five-and-a-half years of dedicated writing and promo to reach this point… at that rate I should be able to give up the day job in 2071. When I’ll be 106 years old. Oh well!)

Articles for academic journals are much easier and quicker to write than books. They’re also good for testing and refining small ideas. I enjoy writing them, so I’m not going to stop. But I am planning to reduce the number I write to two a year, and publish those in OA journals or not at all.

This is primarily an ethical decision. Early in the days of OA publishing, although I liked the prospect from a reader’s viewpoint, I worried that many writers would be excluded because of the costs. I think that is still the case in some quarters, but I have found that reputable OA journals are often willing to waive their fees for independent researchers, and some don’t charge fees at all. Also, I would like my work to be more widely accessible, including to people who are temporarily or permanently outside the academy, or in parts of the world where it’s particularly difficult for people to access paywalled academic journals.

There are many more open access journals around now than there were five years ago. When I was working on the first edition of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners, in 2012, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) listed 22 journals covering social work. Now it lists 125. There are similar levels of increase in other subject areas, and there are now 9,000 journals on the site as a whole. Yet the DOAJ only lists journals that are peer-reviewed or otherwise editorially controlled; they don’t list predatory journals. They promote best practice in OA publishing and have high ethical standards.

I feel ashamed to say that I have never published an article in an OA journal. To begin with I was advised on where to publish by academic mentors, then I wanted to publish in the journals I liked to read. Now I want to read more OA journals as well as publishing in them. I’m not going to rule out citing work from paywalled journals – yet – but I want to focus on finding and using more OA journals, rather than going straight to the usual suspects all the time.

I do have a couple of articles in the pipeline with paywalled journals, so it’ll be a while before I get to assess the impact of my New Year’s resolution for 2017. Nevertheless, I’m sure it’ll be an interesting adventure!