Science writing I’d pay to read

By Ed Yong | March 4, 2011 9:23 am

“That’s brilliant. I’d pay good money for that.”

I’ve been saying this a lot recently. My RSS reader, Twitter stream and other sources of incoming goodies have been chock-full of stand-out pieces – posts that are long, thorough, beautifully written, and most of all, unpaid. Have a look at Greg Downey’s opus on the biology of holding your breath, or Delene Beeland’s piece on Ethiopia’s church forests, or Brian Switek’s post on human origins, or Bora Zivkovic’s tour de force on clock genes, or Steve Silberman’s… well pretty much everything by Steve Silberman.

I read these pieces in amazement that their writers should stick them up for free, when so many others pen far lesser works for a salary. Clearly, the writers are happy to provide free content and they get various advantages out of it. But I absolutely believe that good writers should be paid for good work. I read these pieces and think, “That took a lot of effort. It’s a shame they didn’t get paid for that. I’d pay good money for that.”

And then, last week, I thought, “Hey, why don’t I pay good money for that?”

So I’m going to. As of this month, I am putting my money where my mouth is and trying to set an example. The basic idea: every month, I’m going to choose ten pieces that I really enjoyed and  donate £3 to the author as a token of my appreciation.

To clarify the rules further:

  • This excludes pieces written for paying mainstream institutions. This is for rewarding people who give content freely. I include bloggers who belong to paying networks like Discover, Scienceblogs and Wired, on the grounds that their rewards are fairly small and are typically based on traffic not, say, word count. So a great, long post may get no views (and earn no money) because it doesn’t have Lady Gaga in the URL.
  • There are no formal criteria about things like topic, length, style and so on. I naturally gravitate towards long-form journalistic pieces aimed at general audiences, but posts can make the list for all sorts of reasons not limited to making an important point, making me laugh, or being beautiful. Basically, whatever I enjoy with all the subjectivity that involves.
  • The number of pieces and the donation per piece may change as we go along – maybe more pieces, and less money for each – but they seem like reasonable figures for now and not vastly different from what, say, the Times charges for its paywall.

Of course, at £3, the reward to the author is pretty trivial but this is more of an acknowledgement that I as a reader enjoyed the work and felt it was worth my money. People might not want it or feel weird about it. That’s fine and probably expected, (although I would hope that no one would actually take offence at the idea) and I’ll just redistribute among the other candidates. But I do feel that these personalised micropayments are a bit unexplored and I want to explore them.

Then, there are the not inconsiderable logistical problems. How do I actually get the money to people? For the moment, I’m going to do it primitively-as-you-like. I will contact people on the list myself about their Paypal accounts, if they have them. Londoners can claim a pint off me, if they prefer (yes, that’s what booze costs in London).

Ultimately, I’d love to have some way for readers to make similar donations if they so chose to – otherwise, this might just turn into a small group of people swapping money. Maybe a Paypal button on the side, where all the proceeds in a given month are split between the chosen writers for that month? Or a button for each writer? Or maybe one where donations are split between me and the others? I’m open to suggestions about how this could work and whether readers would be happy to contribute.

In an ideal world, every blogger would have a Paypal button or similar on their site that I could click on. Some people find that uncomfortable; some networked bloggers can’t actually install one (for technical or policy reasons). Alternatively, everyone could use something like Flattr – it’s a great model, but it runs into the same problems. There could be a third-party site where people could register their Paypal accounts? Again, I’m keen to hear any suggestions.

I know this might all sound a bit strange to a lot of people and I cannot stress enough that this is a giving initiative, not a collecting one. I’m not asking everyone to start demanding money for their work. I’m saying that good writers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living because companies are increasingly unwilling to pay good money for good writing. And that would be to everyone’s detriment. To an extent, I think it falls to the consumer to support good writing financially and, as a consumer, I am willing to do my part.

And without further ado, my picks for February. I will be in touch with these fine people soon:

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Journalism, Tip jar

Comments (31)

  1. Viktor

    One option is to start making the use of flattr (or a competitor) more common. I use it, and like it. Not sure if it generates any significant revenue, but you know that you are appreciated at least. You can check it out at flattr.com if you haven’t already.

    Edit: Oops. I didn’t see that you mentioned flattr. Score zero for reading comprehension.

  2. mem

    Actually, we were discussing a similar issue–how to reward good stuff–but not financially particularly. The issue is that we want to reward good science journalism, but we don’t know how. How does the system work so that we can best encourage this in the mainstream? To ensure these writers get rewarded in a career way, and with paying gigs?

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/03/02/951746/-Rewarding-Good-Science-Journalism

    I’ll bring suggestions back to this group. They did seem to want to support the effort.

  3. I’ll also voice my support for flattr. I think their “fixed monthly sum” concept works great. And since they offer a static image button – my guess is that you can also just put a link on your page (re. technical reasons). Individual writers can also just have a personal flattr page – so that it is not necessary to put a button or link on each individual post – one can just flattr them in general if one has read something great from them lately.

    I try to avoid Paypal, so my fingers are crossed for flattr.

  4. The problem with Flattr (and I did mention it in the post) is that it requires everyone whose posts I want to pay for to have Flattr buttons on their sites.

    What I’d ideally like is a way of hosting, say, 10 buttons on THIS site that would send donations to the people who I choose. That would make it enormously easy for readers to impulsively make donations. Not sure if Flattr can do that?

  5. Cathy

    It shouldn’t be too difficult from a coding standpoint to find the flattr icon and link it to an author’s flattr page. So if you do a blog post highlighting the author, you can include the button with “click here to flattr them” if they have opted in.

  6. Good proposal Ed, and well done on taking the initiative. I use stuff like WordWeb, Wikipedia, Creative Commons and Paint.net every day, as well as a host of Firefox add ons offered free by developers, and am happy to donate. Usually this happens during a drive (WikiP) or a software update, which gives the developer the chance to request some cash love.

    So the issue is two fold – stimulating people to consider donating, and providing a simple means of doing so. I think conspicious appreciation like you’ve done here is great for the first part, the second (as you point out) is much harder! If we’re trying to maintain the impulsive nature of donations, maybe you could collect the donations through your PayPal and redistribute, but that’s a bit of a ballache for you (though once a month ain’t too bad).

    Perhaps there’s some kind of Western Union / Just Giving thing that allows you to set up a bucket for people, after which you can give them the keys and let them collect the donations?

  7. Mr. Ed Yong–you give the experienced writer, the young, and the old-and experienced-gaining-experience-with-science-writing-people hope. I’m in the later category. I’ve always enjoyed great science writing. Congratulations to the folks on your list…I’m going to read them….when I get my first paid assignment–I’ll set some aside for others! Hopefully I’ll never be in the other science writing fund–also incentive!

  8. There’s a service called Readability that already does exactly what Ed is proposing, in an entirely automated, pushbutton way.

    https://www.readability.com/learn-more

    It’s like a combination of Instapaper and “Pay it Forward”… the Readability user pays a $5/mo subscription fee, 70% of which gets funnelled directly and automatically to the “publishers” (ie content creators) of the blog posts you push through the service. The free version of Readability (which I use) is pretty damn great too.

    Pros: brainlessly easy to use. Set it and forget it, basically. No f’ing around with Paypal, individual tip jar functionality for different blogs, yada yada. You just get to focus on reading good stuff, and the money automatically flows to those writers whose work you deem worthy of your attention.

    Cons: 100% doesn’t go to the content creators. But this is only a con if you like wasting your time with all the backend/process crap of moving the money around yourself, instead of paying Readability a pittance to do it for you. More important is the weird fact that the MORE you read, the less any individual content creator gets paid, because Readability divvies up your $3.50/mo equally between all the publishers you push through the service. So if you only read one article in Readability last month, that writer gets $3.50. If you read ten, everyone only gets $.35. So the incentives are a little warped. But it’s still a really cool service, and they’re open to ideas for improving it:

    http://readability.bonfireapp.com/

  9. Oh also, the main good thing about Readability is it does NOT require you OR the content creators to add code or do anything to their sites in order to get paid.

  10. So, first, I am enormously flattered. (And if I can get over there for SoLo11, I would happily accept a pint. Second round on me.)

    And, second, I entirely share this impulse of wanting to pay-forward in some way to people whose work I value. I pay for shareware all the time, in fact sometimes overpay if I especially like the program, so why not writers?

    But, like some of the others, I am in a widget-free world at Wired, and I suck at code. So I am interested in hearing any of the ideas people have for doing this, especially automating this. The less effort it requires to make a payment, the more the idea of making such payments might spread.

  11. JB Tait

    I would like to see all blog platform software come with a [[ Donate ]] button by default. Then, during the configuration stage, the author would be asked to choose to link it to their PayPal or other payment receiving option or redirect it to a charity of their choice.

    If a donation path were in the default configuration, no one would be seen as having an inflated ego by having it, and a modest or naive blogger wouldn’t have to be poked to add one.

  12. Ed, this is a fabulous idea!

    *calculates*

    Okay, £3 is US$ 5. I can do that X 10.

    I’d add this: at one of the ScienceOnline sessions, I noted that a good deal of my blog work is derivative of my pro writer friends. Without folks like you and others doing your job, my blogfodder is reduced (no, sorry, I’m not a 100% original content blogger like you, good sir.)

    So, I may adopt a slightly different approach: if I use the writing of someone else in my posts, they will also go on my $5 list. Hell, I give $50/month to my public radio station and I probably get more enjoyment out of 10 blogposts per month.

    Again, Ed, you show just why you are the gentleman of science writing. Well done.

  13. I am thrilled to see you take the initiative to do this and go public about it soon I will be blogging and I hope more people value independent journalism. And I will help this go viral. Hope that you do too.

  14. (I’ve finally dispensed with using initials for commenting.)

    First, I’m flattered. Thank you, Ed, for the vote of confidence. The gentleman of science writing indeed!

    I love the ideas you have and those that are being generated in the comments about how to make this a more widespread phenomenon.

  15. This is a wonderful idea and I just wanted to point you towards a beautiful post written by Emily Willingham (if you haven’t seen it already) for March consideration: http://daisymayfattypants.blogspot.com/2011/02/from-autistic-boy-different-perspective.html

  16. If, in the unlikely event you pick something i’ve written, i’ll fly out to London to get that pint. I’m not really into drinking. I’m assuming you’d be there. That, i’m sure, would be worth the flight. Especially if 144 others send me $5. I’ll get working on renewing my passport. And then i’ll write something worth reading.

  17. Hi Ed,

    I think Raphael Hertzog already does something like what you have in mind – just for Free Software

    http://raphaelhertzog.com/category/flattr/

    Every month he suggests 5 projects/people to support.

    http://raphaelhertzog.com/2010/08/01/first-flattr-foss-suggestions/

    I think Raphael only advertises projects that already have flattr links. But if you want to advertise someone who doesn’t – I think you have enough credibility to simply make your own link and count the clicks and send a check (but I think that is a lot of work).

    Best,
    Anders

  18. A lovely idea, well done Ed.

  19. Molly

    A while ago I found out my bank offers a service where you can send checks for free. You do it electronically so you don’t have to pay for paper checks, and it doesn’t cost you or the recipient anything. I didn’t sign up for it so I’m not sure how much of a hassle it is, but you could set up a way for people to donate to you, and then just split the money between the recipients and send them each one of these e-checks. Or people could specify if they wanted all of their donation sent to a specific person.

  20. Ed:

    This is awesome! Not only are you one of the finest science writers I enjoy reading (although I still miss Stephen Jay Gould’s texts). Now you also aim to contribute pointers to excellent texts from others. This has immense value in an already overwhelming cyberverse (and it will probably be part of any successful future scheme regarding micropayments in tomorrow’s ecosystem). If I had a credit card, I’d certainly channel a few bucks to your account. I don’t have one, sorry. So I can only thank you for sharing with everybody a valuable selection.

  21. Will Tanizaki

    tiptheweb.com would be the best way to do this

  22. I love Ed’s sentiment, but think this complicates life unnecessarily.
    Some of those who blog for free may do so because (like me) they have a well-paid day job (from which blogging provides some welcome light relief).
    Others may hope to build up a reputation that will allow them to become professional bloggers.

    For those in the first category, sensible thing might be to have a notice recommending donations to a favourite charity for those who like the blog.

    For the rest, a recommendation on Ed’s blog will be worth far more to them than 3 pounds.

  23. This is a nice idea. I do like the idea of this type of ‘philanthropic’ support for the creative people of the world. A different, but related, model is that of the Awesome Foundation (http://awesomefoundation.org/), where 10 people in some geographic location (there is one in London, for example) each donate a £100 (or $100) per month and then give this out as grants of up to £1000 to do something, well, awesome. Not sure if you could mold this to the writing type model, it would probably have to reward a body of work rather than individual pieces, but I do find it hopeful that people are prepared to stump up their own money to reward things that people give freely. Maybe we should put that old adage to the test, ‘I love science (or other cool job) so much I’d probably do it even if they didn’t pay me’. We could invite micropayments for peer reviewed publications…

  24. Eminent scientists are resisting cut in budget allocated for science and technology in some countries, where as others (from poor countries) are demanding to increase percentage from invisible ground line.

    To write a quality article, we have to feed news and discovery from journals (but full text are inaccessible here in Nepal, except few from the courtesy of HINARI / WHO). Thanks to the Bloggers who provide latest news / articles related to science, free of cost (panic: we are living 10 hr/day without electricity and very slow internet connection, even if available).

    Master card, visa card, pay pal etc. are rare. I don’t know about Flattr, however, I have been clicking advertisements (if anchor text is interesting to me, hence becoming rare contribution) present in the vicinity of “the articles of quality” in blogs.

  25. This could be a great community building project.

  26. I think the easiest way is to encourage your favorite writers to either have a PayPal Donate button on their blogs, or a link to a private website that has a Donate button there. That way everyone can donate easily. Some of my WP friends have charities as well for conservation, wildlife rescue, and are paying out of their own pockets. So I think your idea is great on many levels. I will recommend to my science friends that they post such links. Thanks.

  27. Pablo Soriano

    My vote goes for encouraging writers to use flatter. I think its use of a monthly fixed assignment is a great idea, allowing you to compulsively vote for your favourite posts, without having to think twice about not ruining your budget.

  28. “The problem with Flattr (and I did mention it in the post) is that it requires everyone whose posts I want to pay for to have Flattr buttons on their sites.”

    However you want to reward people for the work they do, they are somehow going to have to accept your reward. Whether that is through flattr or paypal or anything else to make it easy everyone needs to be in the same system (as individual, personal transactions are going to be impractical at any reasonable scale), and given the ease and cooperative nature of flattr, why not that?

  29. Nithin

    Details of 100+ Magazines/Websites which pays from $0.01 to $1 per word for writing
    For details visit http://www.czigns.com/list.html

  30. Ed, if you or any other scientist wants to have a micropayments system for your awesome articles, you can have one today in a flash. All it takes is a WordPress site, a simple plugin, a couple of rego things, and you’re in business. You set the prices, as little as 1c if you like, get the vast majority of the revenue, can collaborate with other authors, get all articles listed in a catalogue, and any reader needs only one account for access to all sites that use this system.

    There are already two sites using this; http://www.scienceworksmagazine.com. This has PhD students in biology from India, an MIT professor, a physics professor, a working physicist and half a dozen more from various universities around the world acting as both authors and editors. New authors are joining each month. And they totally love the idea they get paid for their work, even though the price is incredibly small for the readers.

    Then there is http://www.newsciencejournalism.com which has more than 400 science journalists spread all around the world.

    It is early days, which is why I can’t list hundreds of sites. But I can tell you we are talking to unis and scientists everywhere and the interest is growing. Soon there will be a third, then a fourth, then a fifth, etc. website. And of course the tech is developing all the time.

    You can get involved with a site that accepts outside authors, do your own, grab a group of like minded people and go for it, set up your own science journal, etc. And peer reviewing can all be part of it if you want to include such editorial processes. Science Works already does.

    Many ways to do this. And in the weeks and months to follow many other associations and faculties will be turning on their trial sites. In fact, we are always looking for people who want to trial this.

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