Thoughts from an academic on the ‘working for free’ debate


I often see people on Twitter moaning about how cheeky people are to invite them to speak or present and then have the audacity to expect them to do it for free. Well, welcome to the world of academia. I’m not saying it’s right per se, but this has become the way things work since, well, forever.

As an academic/researcher you actually pay to attend conferences and seminars in order to speak and be heard often, never mind do it for free. In order to have a paper accepted at a conference you will often have to have registered and paid first. This assumes you have budget, either coming from your academic establishment, or that you can pay yourself. Sometimes academics even to pay to self-publish. If you get invited to speak for free somewhere you therefore usually count it as a privilege and stick the event on your academic CV, which all adds up in terms of your academic worth and value and future promotion potential.

You academic CV grows the more you do – it’s not the standard 2 pager you might be advised to sending out to other jobs. Mine is currently 17 pages long, and lists, among other things: conference papers, journal papers, seminar presentations, book reviews, edited books, books, project outputs, research funding awarded, and conference organization and workshop facilitation. This is of course in addition to actual work experience with job titles and brief job description and list of relevant qualifications and training courses. Obviously, the higher ‘quality’ the outputs mentioned in your CV, and the greater impact on society and industry, the higher your value as an academic, and the more chance you stand of getting that next promotion. Teaching excellence and awards count too by the way.

It would be great to get paid for every conference paper and conference I spoke at, in addition to my main job. It would be great to get paid for journal papers and book reviews and conference organization. It would be great to get paid to speak at seminars. But you just don’t get paid for that normally. Sometimes top names in a given field might get expenses and a consultancy day rate. But by and large people are scrambling to get their name known in their field as an expert and they just do almost everything for free.

You can of course deliver CPD. But as an academic you need to go through your university normally, and as in most contracts, your intellectual property will belong to your employer and they reap the financial rewards. But the presumption is that this is all helping establish you as that name in your field, helping you to make that next book deal and get that next promotion.

In the meantime, academics invite each other to present at seminars as a collaborative starting point. It’s often the case that academics might be lucky to even have budget to offer tea and biscuits for these ventures. So please don’t be offended if you are extended such an invite but are gently informed that unfortunately there is no budget to pay you for this. Think of it as free advertising to build your brand and sell your next book perhaps instead – or a networking opportunity to meet people who WILL be able to pay you for your services in the future. If you no longer need this type of coverage then you are quite within your rights to politely decline and explain that you are not available. But please, please don’t’ be affronted. If we offer you an opportunity like this then actually it’s because in our heads we would welcome it ourselves and may be operating in a different working regime where it’s seen as a privilege to engage like this.

Something I’m not keen on myself though is when a commercial enterprise or consultancy, enlists your help and support and they seem to be making money out of you and you don’t see any rewards at all for your engagement. Is this any different to the university system? I believe so. Universities represent public money for social good, mostly. Or they should. When a private company is engaging your help though, it’s the company owners that directly stand to profit. I don’t think that’s fair. What do you think?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s