Most complaints about unpaid academic labor ignore context

No one likes to be exploited and this perhaps why over the past few years lots of social media posts have taken issue with “unpaid labor” that most academics are asked to do.

These messages outline the typical kinds of things graduate students, instructors and professors are requested to do (mostly submit papers to journals, review papers in peer review venues, review candidates for jobs and promotion, etc.) and sometimes how others (i.e. universities, academic organizations, and publishing companies) profit from it.

Conterminously a sub thread of these posts have focused on the disproportionate free service that people of color and women are asked to do (e.g., organizing, leading, and serving on diversity committees, participating on university and community panels dealing with this issue, etc.) above and beyond their white counterparts.

Unquestionably, the practice of free labor has been normalized in academic settings. And in the case of peer review, scholarly publishers have responded with gimmicks like Publons, that attempts to track the number of reviews you do. And big publishing companies have earned considerable profits from free academic labor and a better system needs to be put in place for remunerating scholars for their work.

I get it. If you are content at your rank, with your employer, and where you live then perhaps it’s fine to make these kinds of complaints, take this stance, and quietly quit. However if you want to secure a job in academia, and in some cases maintain your job, move to a better academic institution, earn tenure, secure a research grant, dream of earning a prestigious academic award (e.g., Guggenheim), and move up the ranks you are going to have to do a lot of free unpaid labor.

Also, for all sorts of vanity and legacy issues, perhaps you want to demonstrate to others that you are an expert. That you still have your chops. If that is the case then you are going to have do free academic labor.

Why? This unpaid academic work typically involves demonstrating to people on search, grant, and award review committees that you are research active, that you are involved in your learned society, and maybe even do some departmental, college, university and community service.

In this case, I don’t know how else you are going to have your cake and eat it too.

But it’s also disingenuous when colleagues decry the amount and type of unpaid academic labor, never review for scholarly journals when asked, but still submit their papers to a peer review journal. (I suspect that many of these individuals are also the people who complain when it takes so long for their papers to be reviewed).

Similarly, in every academic setting there are one or more free riders, people who do not do departmental, college or university, learned society service. It’s not fair that a disproportionate burden is placed on a small number of faculty.

Also, it’s important to determine how much unpaid academic labor and what specific activities is normative in your school, unit, and discipline and not drift into situations where you are overworked with agreeing to engage in unpaid free labor. For example, if the norm is reviewing twelve scholarly papers a year, and two external candidates for tenure or promotion a year, then you are in your right to say enough is enough when someone asks you to do more.

Another thing to keep in mind. Let’s say you are content with your rank, university, location etc. and say to hell with doing any more unpaid academic labor. This means that you are leaving the gate keeping/research agenda setting function of research to junior colleagues (typically untenured assistant professors and associate professors). Again, you may be okay with this state of affairs, but I think it is blatantly wrong.

Finally, if getting paid for your academic research skills and knowledge is what you want then you should try your hand at commercial publishing or writing textbooks. You will soon learn how challenging this is and what small remittances that you will earn.

Photo Credit: Charlie Chaplin from the movie MODERN TIMES