Historically the career of an academic was seen as someone who had time for everything and who was generous in giving away their time. With the introduction of a more managerial approach in the organisation of universities and with the pressure to publish and get grants, this vision has changed quite radically.
Still, it is expected that many tasks can be done on a voluntary basis. For example, you can be asked to review new publications, new grant proposals, or to give a presentation at a conference in Prague.
A lot of our time is spent doing things that are not of direct benefit to our employers.
Yet, it is up to each one of us to decide whether to do it or not, although some tasks like Editor-in-Chief of a journal will be subject to Head of Department approval for example.
So, when shall we agree to do something for free and when shall we turn it down?
Each one of us is unique and some will be naturally inclined to be more generous than others. However, whichever personality you are, you should always think about what you get in return of giving your time for free.
It does not need to be something monetary or material, it can be an emotion.
If reviewing a paper brings you joy and the sense of fulfilment of having contributed to the scientific development of new ideas, then it is a well invested time that fulfils part of your core values and vision.
Let’s take the example of reviewing a scientific article. Everyone gets bombarded with requests from journals to review a new article. What should you do? Should you accept them indiscriminately?
I spend at least 2 to 3 hours reviewing a paper and submitting my recommendation to the journal. If I were to review one paper per week (which is less than the requests I get!), that is roughly 2 to 3 weeks of work per year. Is this a worthwhile way to spend my time?
Again, this depends on what you are getting back out of this reviewing process.
So, I have taken the approach that I only review articles in two cases:
1. I review articles from journals where I am in the Editorial Board (in the traditional meaning of the term, not in the Editorial Board of journal series like Frontiers or Plos where there can be hundreds of academic board members – those are effectively reviewers and not board members!).
I believe that if you commit to something, you need to hold on your promise.
Being on the board of a journal brings you notoriety, you are being recognised among your peers as a leading authority and this is of benefit to your institution too.
So, I believe that it is a worthwhile endeavour to do. In return, the journal expectation is that you will review a few articles per year for the journal and I think that is fair deal.
2. I review articles whose abstract fits directly with the research that I am currently focusing on. Currently is important here because I get a lot of requests to review computational modelling of bone fracture healing due to my early contribution to the subject, but I am not interested in doing more research on this topic.
So reviewing an article on this topic will be only of interest to me because of my curiosity of which progress is being made in this area but not on the current topic that will bring me funding for my research.
For articles that fit within my current or future research, I gladly accept as this enables me to get a head start on the new research and therefore it helps my current research.
Thus, I do not work for free but for getting early access to contents I would not be able to get without the review.
For all other cases, I turn down the requests.
This is my rule, and it can be different than yours, but it is good to have some rules so that if your line manager asks you why you are spending time on reviewing papers instead of writing your own, then you can provide justification.
Some will argue that if we all turn down requests for reviewing, then the reviewing system will not work. Therefore, some propose to review the same number of papers that their publications have received reviews.
If you assume that you receive on average 3 reviews for each paper you submit, and that 1 out 4 papers you submit needs to be resubmitted to another journal because the first one did not accept it, then you should review 15 papers per year if you submit 3 papers per year.
Although this might well be part of your rules, I don’t think that it is necessary.
The publishing system currently gives no monetary value to the work done for reviewing whereas they charge very hefty fees on institutions and researchers for publishing free content derived from public money.
I think that it is an obsolete system that needs changing and therefore I do not feel obliged to sustain the system by reviewing my share. But, I divert, and this will probably be the subject of another post.
What should be clear though is that your time does not come for free. Your employer has hired you to spend your time on delivering their mission and as such you owe them some explanation on how you spend your time even if you have complete autonomy of what you do.
Accountability is key in a healthy trusting relationship between individuals.
Thus, another example where I have strict rules is for grant reviewing.
Reviewing a grant from an international funding agency brings you no value. It might be an area of your expertise in which you are interested in, but assessing whether the research proposal is worth to be funded will not bring direct benefit to your research.
So, I always turn down requests from international agencies who will spend millions on research projects and who cannot afford a tiny fraction of their budget on rewarding the reviewers for their time spent.
My approach to national agencies is different.
First, I am interested to know what my colleagues are working on so that my next research proposal is complementary and not duplicating what is currently being done.
Second, the UK governmental agencies have an agreement with the universities to retribute them back based on the reviews done by their staff. So, spending my time on UK proposals is not a waste of money for my employer, although it is probably not a very good investment!
This is usually the case when the work will bring you some notoriety among your peers.
For example, no one will expect to be paid to give a plenary lecture at the most important annual conference of their field. The impact that this lecture will bring to your notoriety and possibly to your future collaborations is much greater than the cost it takes to prepare yourself for such lecture.
Even, giving a seminar at a colleague institution can be of higher value than the time spent to prepare your seminar and travel to go there, and spend many hours with different people. The value will depend on the circumstances, and it is up to you to decide whether it is a good investment of your time although you will not expect to be paid for this.
There is a conundrum to this though. If you wait until you get invited to give a plenary lecture to the most important conference of your field before you spend any of your time for free, well you might wait a very long time!
And this is where the question of working for free is not easy to answer. It usually depends on where you are in the academic ladder. If you are a post-doc and receive your first article invitation to review. Of course, you are thrilled and willing to do it!
But don’t fall in the trap of accepting everything and being suddenly overwhelmed with reviews to do and not being able to write your own papers. So, you need to start small and actually start in deficit.
At the beginning you will give more than you receive.
And that is ok, because it is ok to be generous. But as your notoriety grows and the number of requests increase, always think whether those requests are a worthwhile investment of your time and of your employer’s money.
Are there examples where you said no to working for free? Have you got ‘rules’ when you receive requests to working for free? Are you overwhelmed with requests to work for free?
Let us know in the comments below.