It Is Not Evil To Get Paid For Work You Do

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.

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34 Responses to It Is Not Evil To Get Paid For Work You Do

  1. Austin says:

    “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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  3. Janne says:

    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…

  4. Wade says:

    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.

  5. Markle says:

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

  6. pacificpsych says:

    >>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.

  7. Craig McGillivary says:

    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.

  8. alice says:

    “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).

  9. Andy F says:

    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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  11. Kuas says:

    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.

  12. 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.

  13. Non-Believer says:

    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.

  14. Zen says:

    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?

  15. mirror2image says:

    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.

  16. Lab Lemming says:

    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.

  17. Mark says:

    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.

  18. Robert says:

    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.

  19. Carl says:

    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?

  20. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    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.

  21. “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.)

  22. Chris says:

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

  23. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    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.

  24. 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.

  25. olderwithmoreinsurance says:

    @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.