It Is Not Evil To Get Paid For Work You Do

By Sean Carroll | October 31, 2010 1:38 pm

Even if that work is writing.

A weird commotion has broken out in the comments on Mark’s post. Unfortunately not about new forces and interactions in the dark sector, which would be great, but about the grave evil done by the profiteering meanies at Scientific American and their witting collaborators, Mark and Jonathan Feng. These two upstanding physicists have apparently written an article that you have to pay to read. It appears that the article is in some sort of “magazine,” an archaic collection of periodic writings that traditionally charge fees for people to access. Bizarre! (The comedy is kicked up a proverbial notch by people blaming the argument on “the extreme left.”)

There is an interesting and important discussion to be had about the best way to efficiently organize an economy of writers and readers in the internet age. This isn’t that discussion. The interesting discussion would consider the tradeoffs between systems with fees, paywalls, advertising, sponsorship, subscriptions, micropayments, and so on. This discussion, in contrast, was kicked off by “paying money for knowledge is plain idiotic” and went downhill from there. (Of all the Laws of the Internet, the firmest is the Second Law of Commentodynamics: in an isolated comment thread, disorder and waste heat only increase with time.)

Paying for knowledge happens all the time. We buy books and magazines, we pay to enter museums, we pay tuition at colleges and universities, and so on. Information on the internet is not, in principle, any different. There’s a lot that is available for free, and that’s great. It does not follow that it should all be free.

If enough resources are free on the internet, it will certainly become more difficult for outlets such as traditional newspapers and magazines to charge for content. They have to both 1) make the case that they add some sort of substantive value, and 2) make the fees small enough and unobtrusive enough that people won’t mind paying. It’s not the only model; at the moment, giving things away but associating them with advertising seems to be more prevalent. We live in an era when the timescales over which technology is changing are substantially less than the time it takes for new economic structures to emerge and mature into equilibrium. This doesn’t change the basic fact that people like getting paid for the work they do, or they might not do it. Which, if that work consists of providing useful services like interesting articles about science addressed to the general public, would be too bad.

  • Austin

    “We live in an era when the timescales over which technology is changing are substantially less than the time it takes for new economic structures to emerge and mature into equilibrium.”

    Well, timescale is an issue for sure, but more substantial, I think, is that there are powerful forces trying to prevent the emergence of new economic structures.

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  • Janne

    No damage done by earning a living. Poor people (students, commies etc) can still gain access to expensive journals on public libraries, right?

    Oh dear. Hmm…

  • Wade

    It IS evil to get paid for work you do, if the work you do is evil. However, in the case of Feng and Trodden, the work they do is merely dark.

    If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

  • Markle

    Not promising when a blog post starts with a strawman in the title.

  • pacificpsych

    >>2. Darius Says:
    … Sorry but paying for information and knowledge is a huge peeve of mine especially this day and age.<<

    Daria (that's me) says:

    Not paying for knowledge is a huge pet peeve of mine. Seriously. I was thinking this when I went over and saw that post.

    Take medicine. Any little procedure that takes two seconds is valued much more than talking to a patient for an hour. Take the search for info on the Net. Everyone googles for health information and what they get is usually some derivative of pharma propaganda.

    Journals wanting to charge exorbitant fees for one article – forget it. But working out some way to pay for cognition on the internet is essential.

  • Craig McGillivary

    The problem is deadweight loss. When you don’t make your internet content free there are a lot of people who would benefit from it who won’t be willing to pay the price. Since distributing and replicating information is very cheap the dead weight loss is very substantial. Charging for knowledge when the distribution costs are near zero often makes society worse off even if it is good for producers.

  • alice

    “There’s a lot that is available for free” No, “There’s a lot that is available for free at the point of entry“. Very little is actually free, it’s just that the payment is hidden.

    How things are paid for might well be distributed differently for different “free” things, sometimes more fairly than others. Maybe people who buy a brand of trainer that pays for a lot of advertising subsidize the tv watching of those who prefer second hand. You can decide if you think that matters or not. Or, in the case of the UK’s NHS, everyone pays something depending on how much their earn (roughly) but everyone can use it to the same levels. Again, you can decide fairness on that.

    There is some honesty at least about a pay wall. I have a online subscription to the Times of London, and I feel slightly uneasy giving money to some people connected to that organization, but then I know I’m also paying for journalists I fully support and enjoy the professionalism of their work. I feel an equal unease when I read a piece on the Guardian about climate change and there is a car advert across the top of the page. Again: there is some honesty at least about a pay wall. Moreover, it’s consumption but just consumption of that media product, not fulled by often unnecessary and environmentally damaging consumption.

    (that said, I’m not a huge fan of the way the Times paywall has been constructed, just because I’m unconvinced it works as a business model, we’ll see…).

    We shouldn’t equate free with nice people giving us stuff. That’s very rarely true and to think so is merely to treat ourselves as children.

    (sorry, that’s a longwinded way of saying I broadly agree with you).

  • Andy F

    Authors like yourself Sean who are adding something new and substantive to our body of knowledge thoroughly deserve to get paid, and get paid well.

    Funny how people use different criteria for judging the value of someone’s talent… just look at how much pop, film and football stars get paid….. And would you expect a plumber or mechanic to work for nothing?

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  • Kuas

    I’m sure glad I didn’t have to pay to read this post.

    On second thought, maybe it would have been better if this post had been hidden behind a paywall.

  • Cynthia Typaldos

    There is another business model besides a paywall — social payments. Yet not a single traditional media company has even experimented with social payments….they are rushing willy-nilly to slap-in-the-face paywalls.

  • Non-Believer

    It will be interesting to see how the new economy of internet works itself out. I worry often that somethings we love are going to go away or be of low quality because free is not a good way to support art, writing, and so on. This idea of people doing things for the “love of it” is not very practical. The greatest things are created by people who are devoted and immersed in their field. They cannot do so without making a living at it.
    However it is amazing how things often pan out in a new direction and the pay wall is just one more option to consider. It is not one that generally works well for me. So much competes for free, its hard to justify paying unless it has particular value to me.

    As far as knowledge…As noted, it has rarely been free.

  • Zen

    I think a distinction between those who receive govt money, and those that don’t, is in order, because if taxes have paid for the research, then haven’t we already paid?

  • mirror2image

    It’s a very simple question, and have little to do with morality, or ideology, or whatever. Practically no one read online content behind paywall, if it’s not some kind of very specialized publication for few proffecionals. It was proven again and again – not only people are not paying for content not vital for their paycheck, they don’t even want to register online. Of cause any author is completely free to hide his article behind paywall, tortuous registration procedure – whatever, and no one can blame him/her for it from any point of view. That’s just no one would read it.

  • Lab Lemming

    Free science education information is important because the disinformation is always free. You won’t find a lot of subscription-only climate denial websites, or herbal cure sites, or vaccine resistance sites. When you have a major democratic party on the verge of taking over congress on an anti-reality political platform, it is very important that we change the information structure where “Watts up with that” is free while each article in Earth and Planetary Science Letters costs $41.95.

  • Mark

    I’m truly amazed at much of this discussion. I’ll just make a few points:

    1) Just for the record, authors get paid a trivial amount for an article in Scientific American – just a small honorarium. The money goes into, among other things, paying for the wonderful artwork and editorial help we got. And I think that should be paid for. No scientist would ever write an article like this for the money.

    2) This is not a research paper reporting on the results of my publicly-funded research. Any one of you can go and read those for free. for example, some relevant to the SciAm article are

    I don’t hear complaints when people write popular books about science, and this is like a very small version of that.

    3) You may not have noticed, but I, and others on this site, actually do an awful lot of free public science education. this includes some of the posts written here, public lectures, science cafes, panel discussions and speaking at schools. It is also worth pointing out that we do not need to do anything like this amount of work, and, without criticizing them, note that most scientists do none of it. I’m not looking for a pat on the back – merely to balance some of the nonsense above.

    4) As far as reaching an audience, I don’t have much to say about the eventual structure of the distribution of knowledge in society, but one thing is entirely clear. The way things run today, this one article is likely to reach many more people who are interested in science than anything I could post for free anywhere. Most certainly it will reach some new people who have not read other things I have done. And at the end of the day, by the way, this is why people write for Scientific American. The idea that one should feel bad about this is, frankly, ridiculous.

  • Robert

    I have no problem paying for good content. And, as a kid and student I loved SciAm. It’s fine for me that one has to pay if one wants to read an article (and of course I am free to not pay and not read).

    Still I think there is one point that needs mentioning: We don’t make a living writing (popular) science articles. (BTW the same goes for writing textbooks where the problem is in fact amplified.) We have well paying jobs at universities so we are not dependent on a few extra bucks from publishers. As Mark says, judging on the hours that writing (and doing research for it before) takes the hourly pay is in fact ridiculous. We are writing in our free time (or as part of our time budget that is already paid for by our salaries).

    I think one provides a great service to the community if one offers excellent text free to access. I would like to applaud the likes of David Tong who’s first class lecture notes on string theory I am currently using in my string theory class. It’s just wonderful to be able to tell the students the text for the course is freely available rather than them having to pay a publisher who cashes in (rather than the author in fact) for gatekeeping the content provided by scientists for very little compensation.

    The comment about artwork etc is of course valid.

  • Carl

    Why is it that every so-called Web 2.0 business seems to involve *somebody else* donating their valuable time and deep expertise for free so that people with commodity web site building skills can get rich?

  • ObsessiveMathsFreak

    Whatever about writing articles in popular magazines, academics publishing their research in pay per view journals is simply not on and never should have been. Most academics have their salaries paid from the public purse, and are paid to produce research for that same public. When they turn around and sell that research to private interests, they are effectively cheating the people who paid for it.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “Charging for knowledge when the distribution costs are near zero often makes society worse off even if it is good for producers.”

    The distribution costs are not that relevant. The idea is paying to the creator of the information. In the past, coupling this with distribution costs was a means to an end. Unfortunately, idiots like RMS haven’t understood this basic fact and accuse people who actually want to get paid for creative work (like writing software) of being some sort of fascists. Ditto for the internet pirates and so on. (I think the name is well chosen: “disagree with me and I’ll kill you” is their favourite mode of argumentation.)

  • Chris

    If you don’t want to pay, go to the library!

  • ObsessiveMathsFreak

    The distribution costs are not that relevant. The idea is paying to the creator of the information.

    They were already paid when they received their weekly paychecks. Academic research is a public patronage and always has been. Private interests should not be involved.

  • Phillip Helbig

    First, I was addressing the general idea of “not paying for knowledge”, not this particular instance. Second, the authors have pointed out that one can read about their academic research free of charge, elsewhere. Third, there have certainly been times and places where the private sector funded academic research.

  • olderwithmoreinsurance

    @Robert As someone who has had several different colleagues equal or even double their academic salaries by writing textbooks, I have to disagree with that part of your argument. Other than for graduate textbooks, I think the reverse is true: I’ve never known anyone who has written a textbook who was NOT in it for the money. It’s also true that most everyone’s academic duties suffer from this. I remember one colleague who scheduled his office hours at 7 a.m. because he knew no students would bother him then and he could work on the next minimal (2% level) new edition of his book(s). This same individual argues that second hand textbooks should be illegal! (try applying that argument to automobiles….)
    Note I’m NOT arguing that people should not be paid for writing textbooks. I’m arguing that everyone I know who has done so has blatantly ripped off the colleges and universities who paid them while they did so.

  • Phillip Helbig

    It seems that if one writes a textbook on time one is otherwise paid for, then the money should go to whoever pays the salary. On the other hand, some people are not paid to work certain times, or a certain number of hours, but to do a certain amount of work. In that case, as long as the “real” work is not neglected, the employer might even like textbooks to be written, since they often include the author’s affiliation. At least if they are good, they are essentially free advertising.

    Some academic work might suffer, but not all. I remember once reading the “Reports from the Observatories” in the sadly defunct and sorely missed Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society. When checking out Sussex, there were something like a dozen single-author papers by John D. Barrow in one year, all in prestigious journals (and he was author on other papers as well). In the same year, he wrote a couple of popular books. I asked someone who worked in Sussex at the time what his hours were, and he replied “pretty much 9 to 5”. I don’t know if he wrote the popular books during working hours or not.

  • bob

    Two points that don’t seem to have been mentioned:
    1) Yes, as Robert said, SciAm once upon a time was a great magazine. But the quality has decreased substantially over the years, and the recent acquisition of SciAm by Nature Publishing Group (NPG) has, if anything, pushed the quality down by quite a bit.
    2) NPG is evil. NPG has been launching new, unneeded and overpriced journals at an alarming rate over the past several years, with no sign of slowing down despite the major worldwide recession. (Alas scientists are only human, and are quite susceptible to the “prestige” of publishing in a journal with “Nature” on the cover). NPG also dramatically increased the library subscription prices of SciAm in both print and online versions, with the result that many academic libraries no longer subscribe to SciAm online and get only one print copy.

  • Alan in Upstate NY

    Nothing wrong with charging for good content, properly edited for clarity and correctness.

    Clear skies, Alan

  • spyder

    I think part of this “debate” stems from the substantive difference between different points of access to stored digital media. When i was still teaching i had free access to all of the Jstor system paid for through the university. Now that i am retired, i simply cannot afford it, but do have a library down the street with limited access. Jstor charges very high premiums to universities and colleges (in the $30k+ range and higher), lesser ones to community colleges (with some reduction in services), and so forth down to secondary students who pay $250 per year for highly limited service. When a professor has completely unlimited access at work, and finds highly restricted access at home (unless s/he uses his university server system from home), those sorts of frustrations become irritants.

  • Timon of Athens

    Obvious but necessary comment: the *really* sad thing here is that nobody is discussing the *physics* content of the original article. Just a load of boring predictable bullshit, including [especially] blog posts about the morality of whatever. This blog increasingly resembles the fabled oozlum bird:

  • Joey

    ICTP (the Abdus Salam International Centre of Theoretical Physics, in Trieste, Italy) gives folks in poor countries reduced/free access to top journals. I wish this was more generalized. While for you 20 dollars for access to some article is nothing, for some of us is a fortune. I’m sure you don’t advocate knowledge-access for the rich only, do you?

  • Sleeth

    For years I heard how farmers faced great financial struggles for all the hard work they did in providing food for our tables. It was costing more to raise a cow then what a cow sold for. I wondered why farmers didn’t get together and just hold back the food from our tables. We would all go hungry while they continued to eat and end up with a much stronger negotiation position. But then I realized it is next to impossible to get farmers around the world to unify so that they could better their lot. Competition between individuals always trumps good of the community.

    Now imagine if scientists united and held back their work, the contents of their brains only passing in secret among themselves. What if the rest of the world went without the benefits of scientific endeavor? What if there were no new articles to publish, no new textbooks, no teaching younger generations, no advancements in medicine and computer technology, no nanoscience, no new discoveries… that is, except for scientists who were the only one to enjoy the benefits of their own hard work.

    Wait, this might make a good novel… nevermind…

  • Pellet Mill squidoo

    thanks for your sharing

    First, I was addressing the general idea of “not paying for knowledge”, not this particular instance. Second, the authors have pointed out that one can read about their academic research free of charge, elsewhere. Third, there have certainly been times and places where the private sector funded academic research.

  • Ray

    The old ‘Information Want To Be Free’ garbage surfaces again. Fail!

    When it comes down to it, if your toilet is plugged up, wouldn’t you value a plumber more than a rock star? Bottom line – if you don’t want to pay, nobody’s making you play. Just stop bitching unless you’re willing to work for nothing.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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