The unsustainable free labour ‘opportunity’

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Last week I received an email from one of the top five commercial academic publishers saying:

Through this work, we are also very interested in the thoughts and perspective of key opinion leaders in these fields, who often have insight into particular regions and countries - which is why I am contacting you. I wondered therefore if you might be open to the opportunity to speaking to me over a phone/video call in the near future, so I can learn a little more about your perspective of the OA landscape in Australia and to share a bit more about our work in this area.”

Before I start, I want to emphasise I do not have an issue with working with publishers. I actually think there should be *more* interaction between publishers, academics and library workers. For example, I am currently a member of the Emerald Open Science Advisory Board. But this request rankled me. Enough for me to write this blog.

I'll explain:
Since returning to Australia from the UK in April 2019 I have worked as a consultant. I have worked with four universities and the Australian Academy of Science and am currently working for a commercial organisation. While this work is itself fulfilling and well paid, the gigs are sporadic, and I have to manage my own taxes, finances, insurance, superannuation, legal documentation, technology etc.

I am not employed by an organisation which means I have no support from a manager or a leader and I have no colleagues nor any organisational protections. And most importantly I have no regular income. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to contribute to the community and knowledge in the open space and am working on academic projects. All for free. (I have detailed these activities at the end.)

Because the majority of work happening in scholarly communication is not in Australia, this means I have regular 6am meetings, frequent 5am meetings and occasionally 4am meetings. I have a monthly 1am meeting for one commitment. At the other end of the day, 10pm meetings are not unusual.  In all, on average I spend at least 5 hours a week in scheduled meetings for these community commitments and at least 5 hours in preparation or following up activities. When an event is on, the time commitment blows out even further.

The work I am doing on the academic side is even more time-hungry, averaging 20+ hours per week. I make it all available for the community (and for commercial organisations) to read or watch. My Twitter feed is entirely scholarly communication-focused and a good source of information, activities and publications. I also present at conferences regularly.  (If you are at all interested, there are descriptions and links below).

Bear in mind, NONE of this has had any monetary reward. It is all work I am doing gratis.

In some ways I am doing all of this to maintain ‘currency’ and to stay connected now that I have shifted to the opposite side of the world to where the real momentum is happening in the Open Research space. I am invested in scholarly communication and do genuinely want change to occur. But I also have to live.

The sector benefits considerably from my contributions. It is interesting to note that the Thesaurus offers ‘underwrite’ and ‘subsidise’ as alternative words for ‘contribute’. And I note that the vast majority of the other members of the committees and working groups I contribute to are employed. They may be doing this in their own time, but they have a regular pay-check to support them. I, on the other hand, need to spend time finding paid work.

This means it is immensely frustrating to be approached by an extraordinarily profitable organisation to be asked to give my knowledge and expertise to them for free. Far be it for me to explain to a commercial organisation how commerce works, but if you want something of value, you need to pay for it. Profitable commercial publishers already benefit from the advice and knowledge of the landscape provided for free by academic librarians. That has its own issues, but when it comes to consultants and self-employed people, they need to compensate them properly.

So, my answer to that publisher request is: I’d be delighted to talk. Here’s my consultancy rate.

I know I am one of many in the Australian research sector who is not currently in long term secure employment, so this might resonate with them. But I should note I was already one year into this situation *before* COVID hit, so I don't know how long this will be sustainable. Frankly, I need to decide if the horse I am flogging is actually still alive.

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Appendix: Unpaid contributions

Recent research contributions

On the academic front I have held a Visiting Fellowship with the National Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science since March 2020. Visiting fellowships are monetary-free mutual arrangements where the fellow is associated with an academic organisation and is part of an academic community, and has access to the resources within the institution, such as the library. In some cases (not mine), a space is available on campus within which to work. In return, the organisation has the benefit of the knowledge and skills of the Fellow, and can attribute any publication outputs by the Fellow to their own organisation. Overall, at least in my case, the visiting fellowship is a fair arrangement.

So, what have I been doing academically over the past year? Well I’m working on an analysis of OA policies in Australian universities which is much more messy and complicated than first anticipated. I have written a short analysis just on the question of whether the policies cover paying for publication and if so, what they allow or ban: "It’s the ‘vibe’ of it: The complexity of open access policies in Australia". I co-presented on our preliminary findings: "Open Access policies in Australian universities" in early February.

We are still analysing the results from the survey on “Scholarly Communication knowledge and skills in Australasian research institutions” (information including the survey instrument is here. But a preliminary presentation was "Where to from here? Identifying training & professional development needs of scholarly communication staff”).

I have been thinking about how research impact coincides with the services libraries are already engaged with in terms of research support. I published The ‘impact opportunity’ for academic libraries through grey literature”, in the Serials Librarian Special Issue on ‘Grey literature’ in December 2020.  In late February I was part of Impact Frameworks & Cultural Change with a podcast - "The Importance of Libraries in Impact Assessment”.

I’ve also been pushing for formalising open research skills and working up an argument, which I presented to the AIMOS Conference in December last year - Embedding open in the research training process, and this was recorded (first 5 mins).

Recent scholarly community contributions

I have sat on (and been an active member of) the Australian Academy of Sciences National Committee for Data in Science since 2013. I began my three years on the FORCE11 Board of Directors this year where am the Chair of the Communication Committee.

Coordinating and preparing for conferences in a virtual environment is much more complex and time consuming than in person, because more falls on the shoulders of the committee – it is not a question of booking space and catering, but a question of technology. The recent Researcher to Reader conference (for which I have sat on the Advisory Board since 2017) was very successful. As a member of the Organising Committee for the OAI - CERN Workshop on Innovations in Scholarly Communication later this year, I am currently in the process of organising a section for the event. Last year the FORCE 11 Scholarly Communication Institute successfully ran as a virtual event. For this I served (and still do) on the Archive committee, and the Advisory Group. I also co-facilitated a two-week course: How to introduce and implement policy in your institution and still have friends afterwards.

On top of my peer review work, I have been on the Editorial Board of Data Science Journal since 2015 and the Editorial Board of Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication since 2016. I am also on several working groups.


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Danny is an expert in developing strategy and policy in the higher education and... More

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