Tired of Writing for No Money

Brian Taylor

June 08, 2011

Following the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, two countries in which I've conducted research, an editor of a peer-reviewed journal invited me to write an essay scrutinizing the role of social media in the two uprisings. Like many other refereed journals, this one will not pay for the article and requests exclusive copyright, which it essentially holds until the world's dissolution.

The journal, which charges universities more than $500 a year for an e-subscription to its two editions, is hawked by a for-profit publisher, yet I am expected to donate my labor as an act of charity. The well-heeled publishing house knows that academics typically need refereed publications to secure our futures, and they feed on that nonsecret.

I sent the journal editor my essay, but I am now reconsidering whether I should sign the copyright agreement.

I've recently found myself in a position that allows me to rethink these somewhat exploitative scholarly practices. Like a growing number of American professors, I have accepted a teaching job that is not structured in traditional tenure terms. However, while nontenure-track arrangements often mean less job security, lower salaries, and, occasionally, reduced benefits, such positions have some unrecognized advantages.

I'm a lucky nontenure drone. The University of Maine offered me a joint teaching position in its Honors College and another academic unit, and the position carries the benefits of a tenure post and a salary that is higher than that of some assistant professors at the university. (To earn that higher salary, I will have to teach one extra course a year.) After a number of years, the position is guarded by something called "just cause" protection, which provides nearly the same security as tenure.

Whether or not growing numbers of nontenure-track academics at U.S. universities are satisfied with their contracts, the benefit to those of us in the positions is the greater autonomy we enjoy over the kinds of writing and creative activity we undertake. Naturally, if a university decides not to extend the tenure option to an academic, the employer can't demand the same work obligations. And as some universities are demanding higher teaching loads in the absence of tenure guarantees, professors are gaining more freedom in determining their personal mix of scholarly production.

That has led me to rethink the often thankless and financially unrewarding slog of churning out refereed-journal articles, which is, of course, the nucleus of successful tenure-and-promotion applications at elite U.S. universities. I've authored a standard number of peer-reviewed articles for someone of my standing, and I will very likely write more in the future, but I will not toil uncompensated for profiteering publishers if I don't have to.

I'm a journalist. Freelance writing is something I both love for the challenge and like for the modest additional income it provides. But even were I a professor in some other discipline, I would still recalibrate my research agenda to fit both my tastes and my financial needs. In many nontenure-track positions, art professors might sell more paintings for fun and profit, finance scholars could devote more time to consulting, poets could send more clips to The New Yorker, and journalists like me could sell commentaries, like that which you're reading, to paying publishers, as opposed to strictly slaving for scholarly journals. Even nontenure-track philosophy professors, who may not have the most concrete of wares to peddle, could, say, write a profitable textbook, something that is not so subtly discouraged for pre-tenure faculty members at major research universities.

Most college and university presidents now favor nontenured positions for most of their faculty, according to a recent report in The Chronicle. Fine. Campus administrators, though, must accept the fact that larger numbers of faculty members will craft their research agendas in nontraditional ways. And academic publishing houses may suffer as more professors like me feel less shackled to the model of publishing solely in peer-reviewed periodicals for six seminal years before tenure.

While tenure-track positions are declining in the United States, tenured posts in English language seem to be increasing in foreign countries, as the global talent crunch grows. Countries like Japan and Germany, with old populations, will probably be in the troubled position of having inadequate numbers of faculty members to staff their research institutions. In journalism, tenure-track jobs in teaching English are emerging in Singapore, Cairo, Hong Kong, Dubai, and many other locales. As foreign universities must compete more forcefully for global talent, faculty hires will be in a better position to negotiate the terms of their research programs.

Administrators at the University of Maine made it clear during my campus interviews that they expect me to publish in refereed journals. But it was also agreed that I would have latitude in choosing my projects. I write a column on global journalism for the Columbia Journalism Review, and I was assured that I could continue that work and that it would be valued for the purposes of contract renewal and just-cause protection. And the Review pays me for my work (no princely sum, but money that allows me to bounce around the world a bit and file dispatches from some interesting locations).

As I prepare for my transition to Maine, my major research project is a book I'm writing on the future of global journalism, something I would be less likely to write at this stage in my career if I were following traditional tenure calculus. I'm having a great time on the project, and I will be paid for my output. For those reasons, academic publishing outfits will see less of my writing. Money isn't everything in the work that I do, but I like to minimize the amount that others enrich themselves by exploiting me.

Justin D. Martin teaches journalism at the American University in Cairo. In August he will be the CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Journalism at the University of Maine at Orono.