Does a "services rendered" model apply in academia?

Apr 10 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

So this is in response to a bit of a kerfuffle that, as far as I can tell, started with Dr24hours on twitter Tuesday night, picked up again Wednesday morning, and resulted in a  post over on his very worthwhile blog Infactorium called "Unpaid Work in Academia."  It concerns the exceptionally common scenario in which a trainee--be it an undergrad, grad student, or post-doc--moves on to the next phase of her career before every last data point she collected has been published. But it should be published, and so who's going to do the work to make that happen? In a nutshell, 24's argument is that if said trainee is somehow forced to write up all remaining manuscripts after she is no longer receiving a paycheck from the PI who supervised the research in question, then that trainee is being exploited.

I have a number of different thoughts about this.

First of all, yes. Nobody should be forced to do anything they don't want to do and that isn't required by a contract that they've signed. But let's talk for a second about the plausibility of being forced to write a manuscript. The only way I can imagine that this is something that actually happens in academia is if former PI threatens not to write any letters of recommendation for the trainee until the papers are in and published. That is a super shitty thing to do as a PI, and personally, I do not see this approach working well for either party in the long run.

But my primary question is, who needs to be blackmailed into writing up their own work?

I take issue with 24's implication that manuscript preparation is something you do for your PI, like a service rendered. While technically, yes, the legal tender direct deposited into your checking account each month is loosely related to the fact that you show up to pipette every day, and your PI is the closest thing to a boss you have, this work is also yours. Every time your name appears on a paper, all those western blots and recordings and dose-response curves define who you are as a scientist. To be clear, I am not arguing that these things are rewards or currency or take the place of real money. But they are important nonetheless, and they are not things that you simply give to your PI in exchange for US dollars, either. These things are a part of your narrative, and if your goal is to stay in academia, your narrative needs to have a bunch of papers in it. You should want these papers to be published, and care about them representing your work in the best way possible.

The question of whether you should be paid to work on these papers after you've formally started a new job is an interesting one, and I'm not sure there's a clear answer. If your job while in PI's lab was to carry out a project, was writing the manuscript a part of that job (meaning it was your responsibility to get it done while employed), or do you consider your salary/stipend to be payment only for whatever you happened to get done during your official employment? Because with the exception of technicians, academic positions are not hourly, so how do we define what counts as "above and beyond?" Grad students, post-docs, and PIs work (a lot of) non-traditional hours. Putting aside the issue of whether stipends and salaries should be higher in general, where do you draw the line? Should we be demanding time-and-a-half for any work we do outside of business hours? Should we put a monetary value on every assay and ANOVA? Some of my best science ideas have come to me during spin class (seriously, I have no idea why) - can I ask my university to reimburse my gym membership? Who do I charge for my time spent writing peer reviews?

My point is this: for better or for worse, what constitutes "work" in academia is nebulous (especially re: the concept of "percent effort" on grants, but that is another topic for another day), but if you're planning on staying, it is in your best interest to get yours done (it is also in your best interest to have a conversation with your PI on mutual expectations). Whether you push to get it done before your paycheck stops or do it after (while you are technically on another time clock) doesn't change the total amount of work you do or the amount of money you will earn for it, because that is simply not the pay structure of academic science.

(As an aside, I'll share this: I wrapped up all my post-doc publications before starting my TT job, and was then criticized in my first departmental review for not publishing anything, which could have only happened by writing up leftover post-doc data. So it is sometimes in your best interest to actively "save" some things to work on during transition times).

If, on the other hand, you are leaving academia, you have to be OK with leaving your work behind, too. Tell your former PI "Sorry, this isn't my work anymore. Give it to someone else." If your PI threatens to withhold LoRs if you don't do it, then that PI is most certainly a dick. Can't argue there. But it is also not worth buckling to your shitty PI's demands in order to get that LoR--you have to let it go. You have a new job and new supervisors who will write you LoRs in the future, and unless you were literally chained to the bench for the last few years,  you should know some other senior academic folks who could write an LoR in place of your PI.

Like in many other areas of life, I think there's a healthy dose of good faith to the way academic relationships work. I would never use my position of power to blackmail trainees into doing their work, but I also hope that they will work hard because they care about what they do. If they don't, I would much rather they just hand it off anyway - it's most likely best for everyone.

35 responses so far

  • dr24hours says:

    Thoughtful and insightful as always. I think "forced" may have been a bad choice of words on my part from the outset. Yes, what constitutes work is nebulous in academia, but it is clear when someone is employed by an institution and when someone is not, at least WRT grad students and postdocs. My belief, fundamentally, is that all work must be compensated with fiduciary instruments (i.e., undergrads may work for credit).

    When a person has moved on, they are no longer being compensated. We need to adopt, in academia, the notion that people deserve to be paid for the work they do. And that when they stop being paid, they're done working, whether the work got finished or not. That might mean a person didn't do the job they were paid to do, but it might just as well mean that the job was badly under-budgeted.

    This is a basic risk of having a constant stream of temporary employees. And it's a terrible problem in our culture that people, like you were, are expected to produce from prior employment.

    • SB says:

      One reason a project I worked on in previous 'employment' (if that's what you call an internship) carried over to my current employment is because of timeline of publishing. Namely, even if I was able to somehow get the paper submitted while I was there, when reviews come back months later, I would definitely have moved on. This is especially an issue when there are multiple rounds of reviews, and major revisions needed. I see this handled in two ways currently. Either the first author/former employee handles it if they are interested in continuing in research work (I am not saying academia because I am talking about federal government research), or the second author strangely takes on the bulk of the work for revisions.

  • AScientist says:

    I think most PIs think about this as a kind of 'charge-it-forward' (as opposed to pay it forward) scenario. A recent PhD is being paid to finish those manuscripts, it's just on the next PI's dime. And when the PhD/postdoc leaves that PI, manuscripts get finished on the next PI's dime, which may well be the trainee now faculty themselves. And so on. Not unpaid at all, ergo not exploitative. The problem comes in when people 'leak' out of the academic pipeline, which has now become most people. Given the time between submission & eventual publication, the problem becomes, do you let people graduate only when their papers are written? submitted? accepted? Do you hold back someone who's defended and have a non-academic job waiting for them? Is that less exploitative? I think once the data is analyzed and manuscript is written, I would have limited expectations from a trainee who has left academia, as opposed to someone who has continued in another lab. Undergrads are a whole different kettle of fish - I expect virtually nothing from them, except sign of on authorship if applicable. They leave all data, notes, lab books, etc. with the PI, end of story.

  • becca says:

    "But my primary question is, who needs to be blackmailed into writing up their own work?"
    The short answer to this question, as a lot of experienced and frustrated PIs may be able to tell you, is "more people than you'd think".
    One of the things the dean of our grad school used to like to discuss was how freakish faculty members are. First, the people who managed to claw their way into faculty positions were not typical undergrads. They were often not typical grad students or postdocs. They were generally among the smartest, hardest working, and luckiest. And they often lack empathy for those who are not all of those things to the same degree. Just because YOU needed to write up your own work, and can't imagine being in a career where it wouldn't matter, doesn't mean everybody else needs to write up their work, or wants to be in the same situation.
    Taken to an extreme, your question of who wouldn't write a paper for free becomes "why doesn't everybody who is clever and working at a McDonalds study by night and write peer-reviewed review articles, or publish citizen science type experimental work?". People have lives with real constraints on their time, and mental energy. Unless you've lived a life where publishing your stuff doesn't matter in a huge career way, don't judge those who would make a different choice than you did.

    52% of PhD holders in the biosciences are not working in academia (
    Given the realities of the job market as it exists, the DEFAULT ASSUMPTION of PIs needs to be that trainees will NOT stay in academia (obviously this is more true of undergrads, and less of postdocs, but either way, those who don't stay shouldn't be an afterthought). Even of those who do stay in academia, I can think of many who will not really *need* an additional publication. Ergo, PIs should really assume that only a minority of trainees will have a high enough level of motivation to finish up work after they leave the lab.

    A *great* many jobs (even those supposedly paid hourly) will seep into one's life to a great degree. That doesn't make it ETHICAL to steal someone's time.

  • GMP says:

    There is a very common case of a graduate student having a job lined up and wanting to leave before the papers are done. Should we as PIs prevent them from graduating and moving on in order to get the papers out while they are on our nickel, or let them move on with the understanding that the papers will happen while they are at their new job?

    (Btw, the latter scenario often results in papers simply never happening or someone else taking over anyway; I now make a point of the student understanding those are the likely options and that they have to make peace with both possibilities.)

    • dr24hours says:

      Or possibility 3: recognize that letting them graduate and move on is about them, not you, and you might not publish some of the work.

      • Dr Becca says:

        Come on, 24. Did you forget that this is very likely federally funded research? Letting data that could be of public use waste away in a spreadsheet somewhere is not ethical. You seem to think that publications only exist for the sole purpose of the PI's CV, which is blatantly false.

        • dr24hours says:

          There's no ethical obligation to publish Fed Funded work. There would be if you were holding it back for personal gain, but that's not what's happening.

          There's simply no justification for expecting people to do uncompensated work. "I need it" or even "The American people deserve it" is not good enough.

        • dr24hours says:

          OK. Strong possibility I'm wrong about the ethics here.

        • becca says:

          Oh come on now. Be *honest*. Is the world going to come to an end if the data from an AVERAGE paper gets put into FigShare or ArXiv instead of the Journal of Integrative Neuroscience? Or if, god forbid, a PI actually has to find someone else to take over the work to publish it (a more likely typical scenario)?

          Look, in a stereotypical case (student graduated, is now in postdoc, maybe a paper with revisions required but all writing not additional experiments), the former lab person should write it up. I think we all agree there. It may not happen as fast as the former PI would like, but as a rule these things work out in the end. You have a little less of one trainees time for a while, a little more of another's, and everybody's career benefits. Yay.

          However, in the endless scenarios of the actual real world, there are other possibilities. It turns out, most of them have ethical drawbacks. If the student is a postdoc in someone else's lab and there are more reviewer-required experiments needed, there is a problem. If the former trainee is no longer in a position where their career will benefit from the publication, there is a problem. In either event there could be an appealing logical solution that has an ethically problematic dimension (e.g. "stealing" new PI's grant monies, or replacing someone who "deserved" authorship and sticking somebody else with the dregs of the experiments to do). There simply aren't perfect ethical solutions to those problems. But I would propose that, for the extremely vast majority of projects, the public interest in the stuff being published in a peer-reviewed journal does NOT trump the public interest in a society of people who do not steal labor. It's not even an ethically close call, in most situations.

          You seem to think that publications are the currency of ALL the realm, not just academia. When people can feed their kids with IF, you can pay them in it.

  • At the risk of blowing up everyone's Twitter feed, I thought I would put a comment here.

    First off, okay, if some crazy PI is forcing old trainees to write papers even though they have no skin in the game anymore, blackmailing them, being a meany, etc, call that unethical - I agree. We can all IMAGINE an example of exploitation and what it might look like. But let's be real, that's not the specific context Dr. Becca is talking about. The specific context is someone in academia (a post doc or new TT PI, say) who is working on publishing results collected from a previous research position (grad school or post doc, say), and who plans to pursue an academic research position, or is already in one. (As an aside, there's a related exploitation narrative regarding science trainees I'm seeing that casts them as indentured servants, serfs, or even "slaves" based on the hard work and relatively low compensation of grad school. This is crazy and super offensive. There are systemic problems with science training, to be sure, but trainees are in no way comparable to slaves, period.)

    If you are an academic scientist in the trainee or early independence phases, it behooves you to publish as many papers as possible. Some will matter more than others, but this is a fact. This includes papers based on current and past research experiences. As a personal example, I've revised/written three PhD research related papers since graduating in December 2012, while also working on new research as a post doc. This continued productivity has helped me get a post doc NRSA (my PO told me this literally was discussed at the funding council meeting), travel awards, etc, and (we'll see) hopefully interviews for TT jobs sometime down the road. This is one form of compensation I have received since graduating (besides, incidentally, my postdoc salary). Finishing your work, to publication, is a practical necessity regardless of whether the research was done during a previous position.

    But there's another aspect of this that is lost if you just assume someone on the academic track writing papers from previous grad (or whatever) is by definition being exploited. Papers aren't some product you have to churn out so you can punch the clock at the end of the day and get a pay stub, they reflect your commitment to developing and continuing a research trajectory, to being an academic scientist. Which is whole point for someone in this position! And I don't even mean this in an idealistic "science rulez!" kind of way. If you're an academic scientist, you want to contribute to the net knowledge of the particular field you're working in, you want people to know about your research, and they won't if you don't publish it.

    A few questions to probe this payment for any "work" done idea. What if a former PI, or committee member, or colleague, asks you to go over a manuscript they have in prep? Should they pay you, else you'll be exploited? Is it only a problem if the person used to be your boss? Is it a problem forever? What if I want to write a review with my PhD advisor in a couple years, say to revise our interpretations of our previous work in light of new data. Should he pay me for my contribution? What if I'm a PI too at the time. Should I also pay him? If I advise my post doc friend at another university on her experiments, should she feel guilty of exploiting me? Should I charge a consultation fee to keep things ethical?

    • As a quick follow-up here, what I really take issue with is the assertion that a PI is by definition an exploiter - and therefore, unethical - because she is involved (asks for a draft, co-writes, whatever) - in the publication of a paper with a previous trainee. This is conflating a philosophical problem with the structure of academic science with the practical reality of working academic scientists. And it's offensive to the legions of people who are involved in good faith research collaborations.

      • dr24hours says:

        That's a fair point. And I've always asserted that if everyone is willing and happy, then there's no problem. Also, as said on twitter, I don't mean to impugn individual PIs. I feel there's a culture in academia that's tantamount to emotional blackmail. "If you don't do this you're a shitty scientist!" That's BS. Everyone has the right to be compensated for their efforts with tangible assets.

        • There is definitely not a lot of wiggle room for how to approach an academic science career if you want to succeed, and that rigidity (publish everything you can, as prominently as you can, or else) contributes to what you're saying.

          But, if a PI is being a jerk in the process of getting a previous trainees papers published, that's one thing. Is the general practice unethical by definition, is another. My reading of all this is "Don't be a jerk".

  • Bb says:

    A lot of times the PI is not even paying the student. Student TAs for funding, paid by a fellowship, paid On a training grant, or paid by department. In situations like these does the PI have no right to ask the student to work write or publish?

  • I agree with Dr Becca, and I think AScientist hit the nail on the head with his/her comment. If there are papers still to be written/revised after you graduate, you do that stuff while you're a postdoc, and that takes away some time from postdoc lab work, and that's okay, because getting those papers published benefits your career, which is something that also benefits your postdoc PI, because it makes you more likely to land a postdoctoral fellowship and hence get off your PI's payroll, and it makes you more likely to land a faculty gig, which makes your postdoc PI look good, because he or she can say, "Look at my fancy postdoc who got a faculty gig." What a GREAT sentence that was.

    Anyway, that's how I treated it. I did some data analysis and writing from my PhD work while I was in my postdoctoral position, which I treated as a 9-to-5 job, so I felt like I was being compensated for my time.

  • dr24hours says:

    General Q then: how do you feel about your PDs working on their grad school pubs or previous PD pubs while in your lab? Do you give them time?

    • Dr Becca says:

      A question like this - "Do you give them time?" - makes me feel like you really just don't understand the way labs are run. I don't designate my trainees' time for them. I say, "if you are interested in project A, it's yours" and I check in with them regularly to make sure they're making progress at a reasonable pace and to help if I can. If they want to work on their PhD papers as well, that's awesome for them, because as DJJJW pointed about above, my post-doc getting more publications is good for both her and me.

      • dr24hours says:

        I'll freely admit I don't know how bench science labs are run. But I also think - based on seeing what other people write about their labs - that you may be on the "awesome PI" end of the spectrum here.

        • short2thepoint says:

          Most advisers aren't constantly in the lab, and so most don't actually know how many hours their trainees work. They do hopefully know what progress you're making, but they don't know if you did that in one brutal afternoon or in small chunks over a week.

        • DJ Jazzy Jeff Weaver says:

          Not trying to be an ass, but yes, it is apparent that you don't know a lot about how basic science labs are run. In biology, there's a lot of downtime - incubations and stuff like that. During the downtime, you can do things like prep/plan for future experiments, read papers, and write papers from your old lab. Or dick around on Twitter! Point being, the way that things tend to go in a biology lab, writing up your old shit during downtime is no big deal, and I don't think many PIs would have a problem with it, if they were even aware of it to begin with, which they're probably not.

  • boehninglab says:

    Am I the only one who doesn't view science as work? Seriously, there is nothing I love more than being in the lab and getting a new result. Similarly, I would never view writing a paper after leaving a lab "work". I have been a PI for 9 years, I have gotten tenure (twice), I have run a graduate program, and despite this I am in the lab doing experiments at least once a week. I know exactly what my staff are up to. I do not impose ANY schedule upon them. They are exclusively in charge of their own effort. This has very, very, rarely caused an issue (I can only think of one of two rotation students who abused this policy). Why? Because they love science as well, and hopefully love coming to "work" every day. As far as effort, I have let post-docs not only write but do experiments related to projects from previous employers. Just yesterday I told my grad student to just sit down and think and do ANY experiments that interest her, and furthermore she did not have to clear it with me first (actually I encouraged her to do it "behind my back"). I think maybe all of this discussion is related to cultural differences in sub-fields of science.

    • scienerdorkeekist says:

      "Am I the only one who doesn't view science as work? Seriously, there is nothing I love more than being in the lab and getting a new result. Similarly, I would never view writing a paper after leaving a lab "work". "

      No, of course not. We are all just happy joy joy I-suck-it-with-a-smile-because-I-love-it fun nerds who's only desire in the world is to sit in the lab 24/7 (because 12/7 isn't 'compassionate' enough).

      Sorry dude, if you are that fucked up, okay, I prefer being a human being and being treated like one.

      oh, and FU for signing up on this bullshit justification of exploitation. traitor.

      • boehninglab says:

        I treat my staff like human beings. As I stated, I make zero expectations regarding how often they are in the lab. I do not expect 24/7, 8/5 or any other ratio. It is up to them. I don't justify any exploitation, period.

        • scienerdorkeekist says:

          This is not the problem I have. Actually I am pretty sure you are running a paradise of a lab. My problem is that people say things like the part I quoted not realizing that in the real world, this is being held against people.

          More than once I had worked myself into the ground to get something done, because I wanted to get it done. And when I finally broke down and realized for myself I needed the break, there has always been an adviser ready to tell me that I had to keep going like that and if I didn't I wouldn't be 'passionate enough to make it in academia'. Once I took off a single weekend in 3 months and the only response of a senior person in the lab was 'but isn't it getting really close to your thesis deadline?'

          It is fine that you love it. I love it, too. But saying 'it is not work because I love it' is not an argument. Just because you love it doesn't mean it isn't hard work. Just because you love it doesn't mean you don't need breaks, a payment and a private life.

          I love to lift heavy weights in the gym, too. Funny how nobody seems to think doing THAT too often and with too high weights over longer periods of time was a sign of 'not being passionate enought' but one of common sense. Also, nobody doubts it is exhausting. But a lab somehow is the magical workplace where love is enough to keep you going like a perpetuum mobile.

          Yes, I do love it - if I didn't I would have left this terrible work environment that is academia long time ago - but that still means it is work.

  • Eric says:

    If a postdoc has papers to be written from previous lab, they need to do that on their own time (outside of lab). They are being paid to do the current work. I wouldn't want former trainees working on my projects on someone else's dime.

    • ecologist says:

      No, no, no. Speaking as a PI, I absolutely expect any postdoc in my to be working on his/her previous work, and to be thinking about his/her future career (i.e., what he/she will be doing after no longer being a postdoc in my lab) along with working on the current project. To do otherwise is to fail in my responsibility (as PI) to the training component that justifies postdocs being called "trainees".

      Seriously, postdocs are not technicians, they are not only "being paid to do the current work". Besides, anyone with any scientific imagination can, in almost every case, connect the dots between what the "current work" is and what is being done by anyone working in the lab. So, the situation is win-win; Dr. Postdoc completes a paper in my lab and I can point to it as productivity from my lab, related to my current projects; certainly get an acknowledgement in it for the support provided by the current project.

      I have to admit that I can imagine a situation where the postdoc fails to contribute because of over-commitment to previous projects. But I don't get the feeling that this is the issue under discussion here.

    • dr24hours says:

      I suspect that this is a highly prevalent attitude, and is part of the reason that the exploitative environment exists in academia. I bet you also expect your ex-trainees to finish their papers without being paid to do so.

  • Dr Becca says:

    Agreed, ecologist.

    To me, the point of the grad student and post-doc years is to build your career. You learn, you produce, you develop your skills and your reputation. I don't see how you could possibly succeed if there isn't a fluidity to when and how all of these things happen. There is a reason we call PIs "mentors," and not "bosses." We have a responsibility to our trainees to help them succeed.

    @Eric - what, exactly, is "their own time?" Do you track the number of hours each person spends in lab? Do you assume that if they're not physically in the lab, they're not working on things related to their position with you?

  • Clearly there are differences in how PIs treat their trainees (good vs terrible) and how trainees view their PIs (mentor vs boss).

    The PIs who treat their trainees like data generators and milk them until they burn out are wrong and bad but the existence of bad PIs that doesn't mean that writing up a paper from a previous lab is exploitation. Separate issues.

  • chall says:

    I remember finishing my grad studies and going out into unemployment. During those months where I was looking for a post-doc I also finished up two of my manuscripts (without pay because I knew I needed them). And when I finished my post-doc I ended up doing some more experiments afterwards and writing up the manuscript (my PI did most of it since I had already finished major parts of the M&M and results section before leaving) in the evenings of my new job. That was all because I wanted the paper out, not because PI 'demanded' it.

    TBH, I think this ties in with the approach taken with paper writing. Some labs, the PI writes the paper (maybe not the M&M part) and the other authors make figures as needed and reads through the paper and discuss the conclusions. In some other labs, the PD writes the paper and the PI reads through the end of it. In the first case, if you leave the lab - what do you really need to do to get the paper out, since the PI is the driver? Second case, the paper won't get out unless the PI really needs it or if the PD does it.

    I personally think that every PD or grad student who leaves a lab should've finished the M&M section and an outline for the paper since that is how I would've planned my work. THat said, I'm sure there are a lot of views on that out there, depending on what kind of lab it is, what kind of discipline etc.

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