18 March 2017

Should researchers make money from books?

I missed this tweet when it appeared yesterday. By the time someone pointed me to the rather animated thread that followed, it had gone quiet again. (Daniël put out an earlier tweet on the same subject here, but the follow-up thread was a lot shorter.)
I think it's fair to say that Daniël didn't get a lot of takers for his idea. (I'll let you read the thread/s yourself, as I find that one embedded tweet in a blog post is already annoying enough, especially when reading on a mobile device.) There were discussions about the remuneration system for US academics whereby many of them don't get a salary for three months in the summer (this seems utterly weird to Europeans, but our American colleagues just treat it as part of the landscape), as well as questions about intellectual property.

At one point Daniël revealed that if you want him to come to your university or conference and give some version of his excellent MOOC on statistical inferences (I took it, I passed, I am now quite a bit less ill-informed on several statistical topics) then he will charge you $1,000.  But I think that he would argue—and I certainly wouldn't object—that being compensated for your time to show up somewhere in person is not unreasonable.  (I asked Daniël to comment on this post before I published it.  He pointed out that he does plenty of other teaching for free.  He also adds that the best way to follow his course is to take it online, because there are no "ums" and "erms", and you can schedule your own bathroom breaks.)

Daniël's argument, if I've understood it correctly, is based on the following points:
1. The general principle that knowledge should be freely available.
2. The acknowledgement that in many (most?) cases, the money that paid for either (a) the specific empirical research that led to the findings being discussed in the book, or (b) the basic academic job of the person writing the book, came from taxpayers. I don't think I've ever discussed "Politics with a capital P" with Daniël, not least because he and I don't get to vote in the same country, but I hope he will tolerate me guessing that he is probably somewhere to the left of centre. I find it particularly commendable that he frequently communicates in public the awareness that the money that pays his salary does not fall from the skies every time it rains in Rotterdam(*).
3. A belief that what you have learned, what you have discovered, what you "know", doesn't "belong to you" (cf. point 1).

A quick pause for full disclosure (and a shameless plug) here: I am one of the editors of this forthcoming book (**), for which I will get a royalty of about $7 for every copy sold. Actually, this needn't be a pause --- it can be an interesting case study of Daniël's logic. Some of the knowledge that went into my contribution to that book (which, apart from being the principal assembler and coordinator of the overall manuscript, was as a chapter author and a critical reviewer of many of the chapters) was acquired while I was a *paying* Master's student (my MSc cost me about $12,000 in fees, plus probably another $8,000 in travel and lodging expenses). A little has been acquired in my more recent role as a non-paying, but non-salaried PhD student. Most was just from reading, interacting with people, and some attempts at critical thinking. My situation in science is obviously quite atypical, but any system that attempts to determine what is either legally or morally acceptable has to be able to define and cope with edge cases. On the other hand, my co-editors are (as far as I know) full-time salaried academics. Should different rules apply to the various editors of the same book? Who is going to make and enforce these rules?

Back to Daniël's points: I sort of agree and sort of don't. (People who have read some of my, er, "output" are sometimes surprised to find how ambivalent I am on many issues.) Writing a book is hard work --- it's almost certainly a qualitatively different experience from writing a journal article. (I haven't written a book from scratch. But I know how hard it is to coordinate a big manuscript, and I did translate a full-length book [PDF] --- one which, incidentally, had previously been scanned and put online so that the author couldn't expect to receive much in the way of royalties from its sale afterwards. Also, many books by academics combine accounts of their own (or others') research with their interpretations of what these might mean for society. Some of Roy Baumeister's (sometimes provocative ***) books are a good example of this, I think.

On the other hand, I think that people who defend the idea of deriving income from books need to check that their logic on this point follows their logic when it comes to the publishing of scientific articles. Most of the people who responded to Daniël's tweets (at least, among the names I recognised) are people who strongly defend open access publishing. But it's very easy to denounce the evils of publishing companies when you don't get any revenue yourself from their output. Among the subset of pro-open access people who have also written books, I don't see many of them exhorting people to place PDF copies of those books on Sci-Hub. (Anyone want to bet that we will not hear at some point of a scandal whereby some researcher or other has been taking kickbacks from the article processing charges --- which are typically paid for out of grant money --- at open access journals? I hasten to add that I have no evidence that this is taking place at the moment, but I would be amazed if it didn't happen. People can be very... creative when it comes to spending other people's money.)

One area where I feel less ambivalent is in the writing of "popular" books. If you leverage your government-funded research and/or status as a professor at a publicly-funded university into pop science or self-help books, seminars, and pay-to-listen podcasts, not to mention sponsored keynotes, corporate consulting gigs, and public speaking appearances, then I think that you ought to be making more of a contribution back than just income tax on the royalties and fees, especially since most of the work that got you that speaking gig was probably done by someone else, who may not even believe in the research any more. (I would have included TED talks in this list, but apparently TED speakers don't get paid. I'm sure they all give those talks out of the goodness of their hearts, and not in any way out of a consideration for how they might leverage their appearance into other, more lucrative speaking opportunities.) Naturally, as per the discussion a couple of paragraphs earlier, I don't have a proposed practical solution for this.

In summary, I find this an interesting debate. Perhaps it's destined to remain theoretical for the foreseeable future (apart from anything else, academic norms tend to span the boundaries of legal jurisdictions), but I think it's worth discussing and I'm glad Daniël raised it.

(*) It would be nice if money did arrive that way, because I lived there for four years and it rains a lot, often horizontally.
(**) Yes, that's a great picture on the cover. It's by my brother-in-law, and I believe that he will get a fee for it. Is this nepotism? I just wanted a non-boring cover design (check out what most handbook cover art is like) and I knew that Tony was pretty handy with a brush; this is a picture that he had painted a while ago. Should we have had a call for tenders to avoid possible questions about nepotism? Hmmm.
(***) I linked to Amazon here, but if you don't believe that academics should benefit from writing books about their own or other people's research, you can find a full PDF of the book without too much trouble. ;-)


  1. You mention that people who have heard of your work pointing out errors in published research "are sometimes surprised to find how ambivalent I am on many issues". I think part of that is unfortunately how you are framed when a journalist writes an article that reports some of the errors you have found. For example, Bartlett describes you as a "a crusading troublemaker of sorts". But really in that article, and in many others, they are only talking about numerical discrepancies you have found. So you could just as easily be presented as a plodding accountant, a meticulous detail lover, or a guy who probably enjoys things like the puzzles in the Sunday paper. I think this is a product of a certain attitude, that certain kinds of criticism are still frowned on in, of all places, science! It seems to me that people wouldn't linguistically frame a critic the way they do you if it was someone pointing out inconsistencies in the annual report of a corporation.

  2. It is a bit of a conundrum and I can also see both sides, because I personally do not like opportunism, but I do not think Daniel's analogy is at all valid. Roads are maintained by the government - by citizens' tax dollars. As a matter of fact, in my opinion, the big industries that send their semi-trucks down our public highways and who do the most damage to them should be paying for their maintenance ... but that's neither here nor there. The scholar being paid for a book from a for-profit publishing house is akin to the student-athlete being paid for his/her services toward the huge athletic profits made by universities, sponsors, television networks, and other entities involved in college sports. When it comes down to it, I believe that the student-athletes as well as the scholars are being exploited by huge industries who make enormous profits from the work of the aforementioned, so I do think remuneration is warranted. I think that is part of the equation: Are large, profitable industries/corporations making financial gains from your service? That is where the question of being paid or not being paid comes in. Would we ask popular actors or musicians to take a simple, flat stipend for their work because they should be creating it merely for the sake of art, while the film and music executives make all of the profits? (Well, that kind of exploitation has occurred in the past ...)

  3. @Kristine: I think that Daniël's alternative might not have involved publishing a book with a publisher but waiving the author's royalties. I presume he meant that people should disseminate their knowledge in some free form (PDF, slideshow, video, long blog posts, etc).

    I'm quite surprised that the Internet doesn't seem to have trashed book publishing as fast as it trashed dead-tree news media. Maybe there is still a market for people who are prepared to pay for knowledge.