Are Scientists Who Blog Undercutting Professional Science Writers?

By Neuroskeptic | October 28, 2013 4:21 pm

Recent events have got me thinking about writing for free.

write_moneyWhen I started out, I blogged for free. I did that for four years. Now Discover pay me some, but my day job as a neuroscientist pays the bills. Many other scientists blog, and I don’t know any who didn’t at least begin by writing for free.

Honestly, I’m OK with that. For me, writing is its own reward (although money is nice). But what about people who do (try to) make a living from writing? Are they OK with it? Or are scientists who blog for free undercutting them?

This is a worry of mine.

Now this concern is based on the idea that science writing is some kind of zero-sum game – the idea that there’s only so much work to be done, and that if some people do it for free, that means no-one gets paid for it. Is that an accurate description of the market? Surely not entirely, but maybe there’s enough truth in it that my worry is not unfounded.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: blogging, media, science, select, Top Posts
  • TheBrett

    I think it’s zero-sum nonsense, because writing that is done for free is not necessarily writing that otherwise would have been paid for – it probably just wouldn’t be done.

    If you think about it, accepting the logic that “doing X for free undermines people trying to do X for a living” means that volunteerism should be condemned as well. After all, if I helped my old neighbor by mowing her lawn, I’m taking away work that could have been done by someone for money.

    It also seems to reflect a kind of entitlement to me, the idea that you are “owed” compensation in exchange for doing any particular activity. By that logic, I love reading – so why aren’t people paying me to read books for them?

  • dadafountain

    Yeah, the assumption that there is a baseline of science writing that is owed to keep in existence is something I question. Frankly, I prefer my science writing come mostly from amateurs who are primarily scientists so I can trust they really understand the field from the inside.

    As an ex-newspaper journalist, I feel people’s pain on the issue of being pushed out by free content. For that same reason, however, I have been forced to look at the media market of the last couple centuries and admit that there is no constant baseline from which to extrapolate. Some industries rise up for a few decades and then vanish, and one generation’s beneficiary may become the outdated sitting duck of the next.

    As for me, I have never ever had so much good science news as this past 5 years, and I attribute that precisely to the end of the monopoly of the paid science writer.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      From my, blogger’s, perspective, the size and quality of the science-writing-sphere certainly has expanded over the past 5 years.

  • beta

    In my experience, the writing quality between profesional science writer and scientist writer is enormous. The story of the science, the people involved, how it relates to history, or culture, is just as fascinating as the science itself. Writers usually are better at incorporating these elements and the craft of writing in general than scientists who often like to talk about their work in a much more narrow, and often less engaging scope.

    This is coming from a science writer who earned degrees in journalism and biology, so maybe I’m biased. But I was able to pick up on the different writing approaches even before college.

    • theLaplaceDemon

      And when I think about science articles from mainstream publications that I actually liked and respected, most of them do follow the historical/people angle more than the dissect-the-science angle. I’m thinking of the recent NTY story about GMO oranges, for example, which was excellent. But typical when a major publication has an article that starts with “Scientists have discovered…” or “New research shows…” bad things follow.

  • Katherine Krein

    I feel for everyone trying to make a living in their chosen field, including science writers. But, I don’t think that people who want to write for free (whatever their reason) should be made to feel bad.

    • http://rybicki.wordpress.com/ Ed Rybicki

      I don’t…feel bad, that is B-) Though I’d feel better if someone paid me??

  • Matt Baen

    The “internization” of professionals is an ongoing process. Now it’s writing for free, or providing free art or free songs to gain exposure. Adjuncts in the brutal labor scheme that is academia teach for nearly free. But it will not stop there. Soon enough more and more professors will be replaced by online video courses, medical diagnosticians by computers, and food service workers by robots.

    Most of humanity, besides the parastic ownership class and a few highly skilled technicians, are becoming obsolete thanks to the inexorable change caused by the internet, computers, and robotics. Whatever you do, no matter your training, soon enough there will be an app for that.

    Creative destruction in this case is the mass destruction of the value of human labor, and the disruptive effect of these technologies means disrupting the incentive of techno-capitalists to allow you to earn survival wages.

    So don’t sweat bloggers putting science journalists out of work. Soon enough, you’ll all be out of work.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Will someone one day write an app that can write this blog? I hope not. But if someone does, I hope it’s me.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Kheun Tan

    No doubts there are lots of things going free. In the IT industry, one of them is Linux. I.e. free OS. Instead of creating job losses, it actually help create a new class of IT administrator for Linux OS.

    Changes are inevitable, but the job market will evolution. However, I doubt that this will make professional science writer job extinct. At most, it evolved.

  • Jan Moren

    A few random points, in no particular order:

    * As scientists we don’t really “write for free” when we write about science. We only do so in the same sense that we write our papers for free, or do public lectures for free – it really becomes part of our job, for which we get a monthly salary.

    * Do we undercut professional restauranteurs every time we make something for ourselves at the stove at home? Do we, when we have a dinner party instead of going out together? When we pack a lunch instead of eating at nearby lunch places?

    No, we don’t. Restaurants have to provide something better enough that we feel it’s worth going there. Can be food quality, can be atmosphere. But mostly it’s reliability, the knowledge that you will get the meal you expected, at the time you wanted it. Restaurants that fail that tend to go out of business.

    Writers can offer flowerier prose, better fact-checking, stricter editing, hard-to-get interviews and reliably meeting deadlines. But of course, sometimes that doesn’t matter. That long-winded blog post or ranty screed is plenty good enough, and the extra value of a professional is not enough to justify their cost.

    * I’m an avid hobby photographer, and I sell images from time to time. I try to get market rates when feasible, and I say no to any “you give us the image for free and we make money off it”-kind of scheme. But I do allow non-commercial use of my images for nothing; and, again, the commercial use of research-related shots without pay.

    Have my pictures deprived a professional photographer of the occasional payment? Oh, certainly, I know it has. But those are cases where an amateur shot was good enough, and it was already available. A better quality result later was not worth enough to the client to pay for it.

  • Neurocritic

    Are scientists who blog for pay undercutting professional science
    writers? After all, they’re the ones w/ paying gigs in popular outlets.

  • http://petrossa.me/ petrossa

    I tend to put more trust in free writers than paid writers all things being equal. Being paid to write imposes a need to write even when you draw a blank. Such as this post. It’s got nothing to do with the field, it’s a pointless discussion which serves only to draw hits. Write about your field of competence, since that’s what you are qualified for. Don’t write about stuff you’re not, there are untold others who can do and do that on minute basis.

  • http://rybicki.wordpress.com/ Ed Rybicki

    If professional writers are providing material that people find is worth paying for, then how can any amount of free writing detract from that?

    It’s like playing music: you progress from excruciatingly awful family-only concerts, through garage bands, to pub ensembles, to…pub ensembles for most folk, but HUUUUGE money for some – and this is the way it should be.

    For music, and well as for writing – it’s just that now there is the chance of SEEING free writing more easily in this digital era, unlike in the analogue days, so the novelty is still lingering.

    So I wouldn’t feel in the least bit guilty – because, if you’re any good, and/or popular enough, someone may well offer to pay you. Or pay you more, in your case!

    • Nick Stuart

      Excellent analogy. The music industry has completely changed. For the best I think.. even though I am much poorer.

      • http://rybicki.wordpress.com/ Ed Rybicki

        And no-one is paying me to write…so i carry on doing it for free!

  • Artem Kaznatcheev

    I think there is two very distinct categories of scientist bloggers. There are those who do it at an academic level, and those who do it for outreach (although the lines can blur sometimes). Academic blogging is where the aim of the blog is to engage with other scientists, and not (necessarily) the public at large. Such bloggers are not undermining science writers since science writers are not knowledgeable enough to write at a level that engages professionals. Such bloggers are just using a very open medium to communicate, and that should be encouraged.

    Bloggers that primarily write for outreach, are undermining science writers, but it is not clear to me if this is necessarily bad. They are introducing a very knowledgeable element of competition into the pop sci. community and that forces science writers to be more careful. However, I think this healthy competition only holds if they are writing on their own blogs. If they start writing for for-profit entities (either regularly or free-lance), then they should ask for pay (and potentially for more pay than the science writers, due to their expertise). If scientists don’t ask for cash, then they are depriving professional writers of income just for their egos (since writing for the popular press seldom leads to any accolades inside the sciences), unlike start-up science writers who have to write for free to build a portfolio and thus aren’t stroking their ego but ensuring future revenue.

  • Kiel Fisher

    Even if it were a zero-sum game (which I don’t think it is), I don’t think the free musings of scientists should be paywalled if the scientists (or any other writer) don’t want them to.

    If you want to offer your own writings for free, that is just awesome – I support the free flow of information, and open access to science for all.

    If you want to get paid for your writings, there are venues for that as well. I would, unfortunately, miss out, as I can’t afford to break through paywalls, and I’m hardly a singular case of an interested mind with little to no funds.

    It’s hard to express how much I appreciate science bloggers and sites like Khan Academy, edX, and coursera for offering free courses in the sciences that would otherwise be unavailable to a great many people. But just like musicians can be successful profiting from paid gigs and merchandising, scientists can also profit from places other than blogs.

    It is my sincere hope that free science blogs will always be accessible to every curious mind that cares to read them. If one can not afford to write for free, they need not – there are many other scientists that apparently can and will. And it is to them that I am forever grateful.

  • theLaplaceDemon

    When I want to read about science in a casual way (that is to say, not scientific papers) I almost always go to a blog (where the writer is writing for free or low-pay). I don’t go to the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal, because 90% of the science articles I read there are utter crap. They misrepresent and sensationalize the science, they miss a lot of the broader context, and sometimes they just report it incorrectly.

    So frankly, I don’t mind if science bloggers are undercutting those people. I do not think they are doing a good job as science journalists. If someone can convincingly make the case that science bloggers are responsible for (or significantly contributing to) the problem of poor science journalism in major publications, I will rethink my position. But IIRC science journalism was shoddy before the blog boom, so…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Kevin O Regan

    Hey Neuroskeptic, as an avid reader and fan of your work I would just like to say that I hope people like you continue to contribute to scientific discourse and not be afraid to make their opinions heard whether they are being paid or not.

    On a related note, I have been appointed letters editor of my colleges upcoming first psychology journal and it would be a great honour as well as a massive coup for me, If you would be interested in writing a letter to the editor for inclusion in our publication (due march 2014).

    I am especially fond of your writings on scientific publication standards, pre-registration and replication of studies but of course any issue you find worthy of mention would be a more than welcome addition to our journal.

    I don’t know if this is the best method of contacting you, I’m not a fan of twitter and I am aware that you are a very busy person; but in any case if you or indeed anyone else who see’s this would be interested in contributing please contact me @ letters.uccpsychjournal@gmail.com.

    Thanks

  • Eric Charles

    I think that, as in many professions, the path towards getting paid for science writing should typically be the one you followed. There should be an expectation that, on average, paid science writing is better than free science writing. If that isn’t true (which I’m not sure it is right now) then things are too screwed up to have a very sensible conversation. Were it true, then most paid science writers would be people who have demonstrated they can produce a higher quality of product — those who want the higher quality product would willingly pay for it, and there wouldn’t be much to talk about. Think of it in terms of professional comic strip writers. Virtually all started out writing for free. Traditionally that meant campus and underground papers, these days it means web comics. But no one (that I know of) complains that comic strips in campus papers have destroyed the lives of professional writers.

  • Lisa Sansom

    Don’t most “amateurs” start out doing things for free? Teachers often start as teaching interns, and have to “apprentice” with paid classroom teachers, for example. Most actors start out in volunteer roles (e.g. school plays…) When you reach a certain level of accreditation or competency, then you get paid. Seems to me this model holds with blogging. Very few bloggers start out getting paid, unless they have already proven their ability to attract eyes in another format (politics, books, movies, etc)

  • Pingback: Are Scientists Who Blog Undercutting Profession...()

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com John Schenkel

    Blogs serve several purposes:
    1) they demonstrate the need for more decent scientific writing.
    2) they allow one to skim a topic and point to things that need to be read in depth.
    I see no conflict between blogs and writing.

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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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