Writing about science for money. Or not.

I should be dragging my dissertation-addled body to the gym but it’s pissing it down here in sarf east London, so what better way to spend a Sunday lunchtime than sluicing down my blogs’ spam queues with a bucket of dettol. And a flamethrower actually. Jesus.

This is all in the cause of Starting Blogging Again, and I’ve been fretting about how to do it. The old political blog for one thing looks like it was actually built for Gladstone as well as featuring opinions likely to be congenial to him. It has a columny, serify, 2007y quality that I could, of course, sweep away by simply changing the theme, or even paying for my own damn CSS like all sensible quasi-professionals. But then, oh, there’s updating the blogroll (turns out that frightful oik Disraeli is no longer blogging either), and fixing all the buttons and pictures that have broken, and sorting out the tags I never really got round to sorting out in the first place, and really, who wouldn’t prefer to just go etchasketch on the whole thing and start again?

Which may mean some changes to this place because I am as likely to stick to the brief in the header as Simon Schama is to stick to talking about history he actually knows something about.

As is illustrated by the fact that this post is about a scientist. This scientist in fact, who recently had a run-in with somebody with an aggregator who wanted her to write content for free and asked her if she was a whore when she politely declined. Yes, really. It is well worth reading the email exchange in full, and watching her video response.

I guess you can chalk this incident up to the random outbreaks of batshit insanity the internet throws in all our paths from time to time. I must have had a dozen exchanges over the years with people similarly eager to shackle my writing to their sub-geocities ad-rev generating donkey, and they never ended in anybody getting called a whore. It’s not, let us say, the sign-off of a successful operator. To that extent, DNLee was just unlucky. But a couple of interesting points emerge from what is hopefully a freak incident, particularly from her response video.

The first is her point about the fact that writers from disadvantaged groups, minority groups and lower socio-economic groups are even more likely to be expected to give up their time for free than their peers not in these groups. I have to admit I hadn’t thought of this before. I am, of course, grimly familiar with the whole pay-versus-exposure theme, and there are plenty of established middle class white male writers who get asked to give their time for free as well – here’s one eloquently complaining about it. But it’s horribly likely to be true, isn’t it.

The second point is about scholarly blogging and public engagement with scholarship as a whole. There’s a number of ways now in which scientists are walking the tightropes humanities scholars have been walking for decades. Remember when the government started making inelegant noises of the sort guaranteed to prompt entire faculty boards to instant apocalyptic fury about science research having to pay its way? As with much else the government does you have to wonder whether they’re actually on the biggest troll in history and all the policy stuff is just kind of secondary. Once you’ve used the word “commercial” to a bunch of academics there’s really not much to be done but sit it out with a crystal radio and a crate of food tins.

Anyway, the explosion occurred, and much was made of the fact that lots of science is speculative and the full value of a piece of research may not be obvious for years, even decades after it is completed. The same is true of pretty much all humanities research, always has been, and, well, see for yourself how that line of argument has panned out. I wonder if this is just another much smaller example of that – a scientist has traditionally been encouraged by the market and by the estimation of society as a whole to put a high price on their time. I’m sure you can be an amateur scientist, in fact I rather hope people are, but I think we have a considerably better collective idea of what an amateur historian is, and looks like, and the “amat” in amateur tends to be very much in point. People are supposed to be “passionate about” history and other humanities subjects, it’s part of the self-identifying deal we’ve all made. That and there’s just lots more of us, and even we can do that much math.

So perhaps it comes as more of a shock to a science post-doc than it does, say, to the average history or archaeology post-doc, to be asked to give up their time and expertise for free. It’s a newer idea to them. And perhaps that sense of shock, that sense of value they have, is well worth preserving. Again, I wonder if some people involved in public engagement in science are being quite wise going down the whole wonder/passion/enthusiasm/let’s-hang-out-at-the-Wellcome-Centre-cafe route for which the arts have long been famous, because while it certainly conveys excitement it does not always convey the professionalism which cues others to respect your worth.


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