Are we watching the death of volunteerism in science?

I hope not; but maybe. Warning: old man yells at clouds.

One of the interesting consequences of being pretty far along in a career is that you see trends*. No, this isn’t a complaint about Auto- Tune in pop music (although to be honest, it could be); this is, after all, mostly a science blog. Instead, what I’m ranting every-so-gently about today is what seems like increasing reluctance to do anything without payment – a gigification of science, if you like.

It’s usually foolish to try tracing trends to their first spark, but I’m tempted to speculate that the furor over “unpaid” peer review was at least an early symptom. For many of us, reviewing is part of our job responsibilities, but for others it may be reasonably seen as a volunteer role. Should those folks demand to be paid? Rather than get distracted by that particular hot-button issue, let me instead suggest that this isn’t an isolated question. Instead, there are a lot of activities that were once done by folks who didn’t expect payment – and I’m seeing, now, increasing resistance to that. Often, it’s phrased along the lines of “no unpaid labour”, and like a lot of slogans that sounds great as long as you don’t think too carefully about it.

Take, for one example, the work of scientific societies. I’m currently President of one (the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution). My compensation for that role is exactly $0 (plus an enormous amount of satisfaction, so I should be clear that I’m not complaining even a tiny little bit). I’m not the only one. Our Society has always operated primarily on the unpaid labour (to borrow that slogan-y phrase) of volunteers. It’s one reason our membership and annual meetings are inexpensive, that we have very strong student membership, and that we were able to offer member benefits like free online webinars during our last pandemic year. It’s not that we don’t pay for anything: we compensate people who provide professional services like audits and translation, for instance. But our members benefit from all the volunteer work that goes into running the society, and in exchange we generally hope those members will volunteer back – perhaps by giving a webinar, perhaps by running for our Society’s governing Council, perhaps by serving on a committee. It works – but it works because there’s a culture of volunteerism.  Recently and increasingly often, though, I’ve seen members ask to be paid for a contribution like one of those. No unpaid labour, right?

Yes, of course we can have a system for science in which every task is compensated – but it will have to be a system in which the user pays correspondingly for every task from which they benefit.** We could pay all scientific society officers – but ultimately, it will be society members who do that paying. We could pay reviewers of manuscripts or of grant proposals – but ultimately, of course, it’s their authors who will do the paying. We could – well, you get the idea.

I think what’s most peculiar is seeing folks who are onside with being paid themselves, but not onside with paying for the labour of others. This is not, I fear, an uncommon position; but it is an unreasonable one. If you want society officers to be paid, you don’t get to complain when membership cost doubles. If you want a stipend for delivering a webinar, you don’t get to attend free ones. If you expect to be paid for serving on a grant review committee, then you don’t get to apply for grants or fellowships to an agency that doesn’t pay. If – well, you get the idea.

We often have choices to pay for things so that others aren’t doing unpaid labour – or not to pay for them.  I’ll wave a red cloak at the bull by suggesting that fundamentally, that’s what Napster was (remember Napster?), and that’s what SciHub is: a mechanism for choosing not to pay for something you could have chosen to pay for.***

Of course the gigified model, in which every task we do for science is paid and every benefit we get must be paid for, isn’t the only possible one. It’s also possible to imagine a system of science in which we all do things for each other, in the expectation that in the long run we’ll benefit about as much as we contribute. Actually, we don’t have to imagine that system, as we’re all quite familiar with it. If you’ve reviewed a paper in the expectation that someone else will review yours, you know what I mean. This, of course, is the place in the post in which some readers will roll their eyes at how incredibly naïve my rose-coloured glasses have made me.**** Although I suppose it’s more likely that I lost those readers a couple of paragraphs ago. Oh well.

© Stephen Heard  November 2, 2021


*^And, to be fair, sometimes overreact to them. I may be overreacting to this one. But I worry that I’m not.

**^Sure, you can argue “no, the government should pay instead” or “no, industry should pay instead”. But this seems naïve on two levels. First, good luck making that happen. Second, if it did happen, inevitably the required financial resources would come out of something else – perhaps our grant funding, perhaps support to higher education. It won’t be money magically summoned from thin air.

***^Not necessarily directly, of course. And to be sure, on SciHub it’s not the authors who are being stiffed. Whether it’s more ethical to stiff a publisher than to stiff an author is an argument I’m not very interested in having; but if you’d like a stiffing-the-authors example instead, consider how many folks use torrent sites and others to find books, movies, and the like. I was once rather shocked to get an email from a young scientist who said they’d found a PDF copy of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing online, and did I mind if they sent copies to all their friends?  It took me a while to compose the reply to that one.

****^I’m not a purist here. Along with my many volunteer roles, I accept paid ones. I receive royalties on sales of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing (although you might be surprised at how modest they are). I accept stipends for the occasional seminar or workshop, and I’m currently negotiating a consulting rate for some endangered-species work. (Although because I’m a very strange person, I appear to be negotiating them downwards.) I’m not even completely sure that I’m consistent about what I’ll do as a volunteer, and what I’ll accept payment for. But I do think about it.

21 thoughts on “Are we watching the death of volunteerism in science?

  1. kenworthy4

    In don’t know what it’s like in Canada, but in the UK we have a huge army of volunteers recording wildlife sightings. I do bumblebee surveys and habitat work and I record every insect I can identify (and get help with those I can’t from volunteer run Facebook groups and recording schemes). My sightings are all verified, again by volunteers and without them the UK wouldn’t have the valuable resource that those records comprise. I do it for my own benefit because I have a great time doing it and I’m still learning.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Great point, definitely true here too, but a rather different sort of volunteerism – this is more about *everyone* doing volunteer science (community science), less about scientists performing volunteer tasks for other scientists. I actually hadn’t thought of this angle. I guess there’s internal volunteerism (my real point); there’s inside-out volunteerism (like when I give a talk to a nature club), and there’s outside-in volunteerism (like iNaturalist). Thanks.

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  2. Jason Bosch

    I haven’t seen a death of volunteerism (but maybe I’m not looking) but I do think the peer review volunteerism is worth being a little clearer about. I’m not sure people are against doing peer review for free to benefit science, they are against doing peer review for free so the journals can profit off their efforts. People are happy to volunteer to serve food at a non-profit soup kitchen but those same people would not volunteer to serve food at McDonalds so the company can make a profit. It’s not public service if it’s in service of a for-profit company.

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  3. Marco Mello

    Thanks for writing about this important issue. Yes, I agree with you that we need to be cautious when demanding payment for traditionally unpaid services in academia. All catchy slogans, especially those that look politically correct and become dogma in social media, oversimplify complex problems. Fortunately, academia is still based on a lot of volunteer work. That’s mainly true in peripheral countries, where most scientists live on soft money and do research with meager grants. Another critical factor explicitly related to the peer review system is the role of big publishing. Back in the 1990s, it was far easier to trust the system, as it consisted mainly of academic societies, other nonprofit institutions, and their relationships. But the game changed radically in the 2000s when we decided it was a good idea to give our journals to corporate management. Journals are the cornerstone of communication and culture building in the small world of science and academia. By giving them away, we also gave trust away. Why work for free for big publishing while they feast on obscene profit? This lack of confidence in volunteerism has rapidly spread from peer review to other facets of academia. Look where we are now.

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  4. Ambika Kamath

    I think it comes down, for me, to the fact that there is just too much job. All of these things that we “volunteer” to do are actually necessary (or at least feel necessary) for advancement in our careers without explicitly being part of our job descriptions. And so it’s like “Well, if I’m working outside of my regular job to do more of my job to ensure that I can stay in my job, I should be paid for it!”–I empathize with that! Ultimately, I think the answer lies in all of us having less to do, which would mean (at the minimum), a radical restructuring of spending priorities in higher ed. The gigification, as you describe it, is trying to find a local, individual solution for what is a collective problem.

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  5. Jeremy Fox

    I wonder how much of the “trend” you’re seeing is a trend among Very Online scientists on Twitter, as opposed to among scientists as a whole?

    My other (vague) thought was that there seem to be two opposing strains of thought about volunteerism vs. paid work on the political left. One strain is the one you discuss–that view that unpaid labor is exploitative. That view often goes along with concern about who can afford to spend time volunteering vs. who can’t. Think for instance of the view that research labs and conservation NGOs shouldn’t take on unpaid volunteer interns, because those interns will disproportionately be well-off white people. But there’s an opposing strain that worries about capitalist economics penetrating every aspect of human life. Worries about the tendency to turn every human interaction into an exchange involving money, and that *that’s* exploitative. This view often goes along with concern about who has money vs. who doesn’t, and how having money can let some people buy their way out of compliance with social or legal obligations.

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  6. DRSJr

    Interesting post. Thanks. I wonder, what should we expect to happen to volunteerism in the context where teaching requirements are constantly increasing, research expectations are increasing, job security is decreasing, probability of getting a tenure-track, or even non-soft money job is decreasing, funding rates are decreasing (necessitating more time writing grants proposals), and the number of journals, conferences and societies (and thus the attendant requests for volunteers) are at all time highs? In a system that has been broken to the point where many brilliant young scholars are relentlessly grinding just to stay employed, the capacity for sub-systems that depend on volunteerism may have been broken as well. From my perspective, there seems to be much less support by the local systems that hire, pay and promote scholars to support the volunteer based meta-system.

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  7. TheFonz...Aaaaay

    One reason people complain about not being paid for peer reviews is the opportunity cost. There’s a pretty big difference IMO between being a peer reviewer (usually anonymous work for a for-profit corporation) and being an officer of a scientific society (usually status-enhancing work for a non-profit organization). It’s not clear why anyone should agree to do free work for a highly profitable corporation, especially academics, who are already time-stressed, who have dismal job prospects if they are not already tenure-track, and where reviewing a paper provides little or no benefit to one’s career. The opportunity cost of reviewing a paper is that you’re not getting your own career-enhancing work done, and it’s not unfair to expect a highly profitable corporation to pay you for that.

    The other reason people complain is the business model. Scientists are doing the overwhelming majority of the work as authors, reviewers, and editors, but they see none of the publishers’ profits for their efforts. Instead, big publishers take advantage of the good nature of scientists (i.e., volunteerism) to rake in massive profits while charging ransoms to university libraries so that scientists can access the fruits of their own labour (which they need in order to do their jobs) and so that the public can access research that they’ve already paid for with their own tax dollars. I think it’s understandable that many people see this as exploitative and resent these corporate profits. (Elsevier makes ~$2 billion in profit annually.)

    Many university libraries are already near their breaking point, so it’s not clear to me that publishers would be able to pass on most of the expenses of paid peer review to authors/consumers. Especially when there are usually a variety of ways for people to access papers for free.

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  8. Jess

    Thanks for the interesting post!
    One thing I would love to point out, is that for students from poor families that must support their own way through college, the expectation of volunteering can be a huge barrier to academia. Some students spend all their time outside of school working, and if they can’t get a job in academia without ‘paying their dues’ first as a volunteer, they might never catch up to people that can afford to spend hours volunteering for research experience. Just another point of consideration 🙂

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  9. ccerebrations

    I don’t think it’s necessary to pay reviewers but I do think that the pushback about reviewing for free has less to do with people wanting to be paid for everything they do and more having to do with these conglomerate journals making huge profits and not having great transparency on how they spend the $$. With the money some of these journals are making they surely could afford to pay reviewers in which case why shouldn’t they? Personally, I think the solution to this would to break them up. Also I’m curious as to how this discourse goes in the humanities and social sciences, especially in regards to the typically lower salaries.

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  10. Rebecca Rooney

    Lots of good comments about volunteer peer review or editor roles with hugely profitable journals, so I won’t touch that one, but a point I didn’t see raised yet is the erosion of job security and casualization of academia. I’m privileged to enjoy a classic tenured 40:40:20 split, and my 20% service quota means I am “paid” to volunteer by my university salary for ~8h/week. It isn’t prescribed how I allocate that 20% of my time and I was certainly strategic pre-tenure about what roles I took on, but my participation in societies, in collegial governance within my institution, peer review, outreach and Scicomm were certainly all supported. Yet with so many sessionals and adjuncts facing zero security and limited prospects of a tenured role, I am not surprised by a growing unwillingness to do all the same service roles for free that us tenure track or tenured folks are paid to do. If universities gigify academia, it’s hard to blame the academics for gigifying science. It’s also a bit gaslighting them to pretend those of us paid to do service are fully volunteering (though for most of us our hours in service roles do exceed a strict 8 hr/week). Last, I think it’s fair to expect service commitments to evolve throughout our careers, with ECRs doing less and taking on more visible roles as they build their labs and secure tenure. Post tenure folks can take on more time consuming or thankless tasks from the security of tenure.

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  11. Nicolas Galtier

    Thanks for an inspiring blog post; 100% agree; I think paying reviewers is the worst thing that could happen, since only well-established publishers can afford this; should lead to the more or less immediate death of diamond journals and open science initiatives like the Peer Community In https://peercommunityin.org/. Who will review for free for non-profit journals when they can make money at elsevier journals? Would only strengthen the position of leading publishers and lead to a further increase of publication fees, overall detrimental to academia. Solution, rather, is that scientists volunteer for every aspect of scientific publication, as some societies and non-profit organizations do. Favor academia-friendly journals as an author and a reviewer: https://dafnee.isem-evolution.fr/

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  12. Jeremy Fox

    Possibly related to the thoughts in the post:

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    1. Jeremy Fox

      And one more:

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  13. Jeremy Fox

    In a strange way, this both supports and refutes the argument in the post. On the one hand, it’s hard to argue for an across-the-board decline in volunteerism in science when R exists. On the other hand, the popularity of R highlights how inconsistently many people apply their principles about the evils of uncompensated labor.

    Liked by 1 person

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      1. Jeremy Fox

        “what if the creators of R had a Patreon? Or a Venmo?”

        Not likely. Can’t find it now, but there’s a comic somewhere on the intertubes about a guy who keeps trying and failing to figure out how to contact the creators of R, to thank them for their amazing work. 🙂

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  14. egd11

    What to think of a scenario where PhD students, job-searching recent graduates and researchers in low-income countries round out their ends-of-the-month by reviewing papers? Some researchers have stable salaries and others do not – the attractiveness of paid ‘gigs’ probably depends on how much you need the money…

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