Friday, January 25, 2013

What's it worth to ya?: Monetizing our intellectual expertise

I've been working out my thoughts on an issue of professional ethics that has arisen recently for me, and I haven't come to any solid conclusions.  (I'll have to word this post a bit carefully to preserve pseudonymity.)  I'd be very interested to hear what my social science colleagues have to say about this. 

As I have mentioned before, I'm a pseudologist of Research Country, specializing in the subfield of Damn Lies.  Most of the time, few people outside my discipline really give a toss about Damn Lies, but a whole big lot of people are very much interested for one reason or another in RC.  This means that, once in a while, people outside the academy seek out my colleagues and me to consult our expert knowledge and opinions.  These people tend to be in a) government, b) journalism, or c) 'consulting firms'.  I can't say I've actually fielded calls from anyone directly in government, but the latter two have certainly sought me out over the last few years.  Infallibly, so far, these people want me – even expect me – to let them pick my brain for free.  The few journalists I actually agreed to speak to, with one exception, have not even acknowledged talking to me in their published pieces, let alone identified me as "Dr. Koshary, a researcher in..."  I was kind of hacked off at this, and even more so at the half-assed and uncomprehending way that they wrote up what I told them.  I decided last year to stop talking to journalists, since they seemed not only totally ignorant of their own subject matter, but unwilling even to get my name out by acknowledging that they had to speak to someone more informed than they.

[Slight tangent to clarify what comes next: the Big Union of Pseudologists is currently engaged in a thorny debate about moving to open access for the journal articles we publish, partly due to a hue and cry raised over the apparently lousy deal we signed with a huge academic publisher.  One of the arguments made in favor of BUP moving away from that publisher is that it uses us as free labor to create its journals, then makes us pay for the privilege of accessing our own research publications.  A corollary argument in favor of open access is that, if our expertise is going to be exploited for commercial ends that do not truly benefit us, then we should at least be paid like the experts we are.]

More recently, a 'consulting firm' contacted me and asked for a long telephone interview, emailing me in their request a stunningly long and complicated list of questions.  Had it come from a student, I would have guessed that someone was trying to sucker me into writing his master's thesis for him.  The nature of the request was, as I read it, asking me to tell them a lot of stuff that I mean to publish in my book and articles — stuff that, without meaning to brag, only I can explain.   I was alarmed to imagine a scenario in which I talked so much to the press or the, uh, 'consultants' that my original ideas and insights came to seem commonplace without ever having been associated with my name.

It put me off, but I wasn't sure if I should treat this optimistically as another way to put my name out there in some level of public intellectual discourse.  I asked the opinion of a well-published colleague, giving hir the name of the consulting firm, and asking if I should demand name recognition in the project and/or financial compensation as an expert consultant.  Zi wrote back saying that, since it appeared that this firm primarily did consulting work for the government – meaning the spooky, shadowy side of the government, which we pseudologists tend to view with well-founded trepidation – zi would advise against it; zi would have told me to go ahead and do it, if it had been a non-profit organization.  As zi put it, it's always good to get your name out.

I respect the hell out of this colleague, but I have to say that this response didn't exactly satisfy me.  Think about it:
  • To all appearances, the firm wanted to pick my brain privately, via telephone, so that it could then turn around and represent my (hard-won!) expertise as theirs.  And, of course, they're doing it for profit, although, honestly, I can only guess precisely who the pertinent clients might be.  
  • You can get your name out with G-men just like you can with anyone else.  Maybe more so, if what you say ends up being in Congressional testimony or some such.  (Perhaps not so much, in this case, but that's a possibility in other scenarios.)
  • At the risk of sound like a mercenary, I didn't ask my colleague if this firm looked 'innocent' and NGO-like.  I asked if I should demand money.  The less innocent the firm is, in fact, the more it seems appropriate to me that they not act like speaking to them should be an act of charity.
The only thing I can think of in my colleague's mind is that, if this project were put towards some U.S. government meddling in the affairs of RC, and my name were somehow attached to that project through the interview, I could become a persona non grata within BUP.  I can't argue with that, but that is technically a different ethical matter from compensation.  In any case, though, since this concern is valid, I responded to the firm that I preferred to speak through my publications.

(Cover-my-ass/I'm-an-idiot admission: I was actually so intrigued with the possibility of presenting myself as an expert consultant whose time was worth real money that I completely forgot to look carefully at the nature of the firm.  Upon closer inspection, my colleague was absolutely right: I don't want to be caught dead anywhere near the kind of clients that this firm tends to take on, even if I were well paid.)

For an opposing viewpoint, I just ran across an announcement by another very serious and well-published colleague, in which zi declares quite plainly that zi does not give expert consultations for free to anyone but other scholars and non-profits.  Not that zi is greedy, to my knowledge: zi is a very busy person, and has published plenty of good stuff that anyone can consult with little effort.  Since hir time is valuable, zi isn't about to faff around repeating what zi has already said in print.  And, if a journalist wants an interview, then this colleague has a whole list of prerequisites: at least a little familiarity with hir scholarship, an explanation of the purpose of the article, the journalist's CV, etc.  Basically, the point comes across that this person is not sitting around by the phone wishing someone would call to validate hir; zi is an active researcher at an R1 institution, and has better things to do than coddle someone who should be doing their own work.  If you're so hot and bothered to speak with the expert, and you intend to make money from your work, pay up.

These colleagues are equally distinguished researchers in pseudology, and both are tenured professors at very fancy R1 universities.  Neither outweighs the other, in my mind.  But, if I'm honest, I prefer the second approach.  The first colleague's advice only makes sense to me if these petitioners actually write my name into their work as a scholar they consulted, and so far, no one has really done that.

On the one hand, charging a consultation fee would be a more honest recognition of my place in the system as an intellectual worker, one whose time can be spent in more or less remunerative ways.  On the other hand, this idea arguably flies in the face of the whole concept of open access to scholarship.

On the one hand, I wonder if treating my expertise as monetarily as well as intellectually valuable would impress upon petitioners that I am not a monastic who cheerfully labors in poverty.  No one would dare call up, say, a Wall Street recruiter or i-banking executive and expect a gratis master class in business — unless, of course, that recruiter is a woman, who must then pointedly refuse to give away her intellectual stock-in-trade.  Why should we academics allow laypeople to treat our expertise any differently?  (Especially when we usually carry a lot more student loan debt than most i-bankers you'll ever meet!  Lord knows I could use the extra money.)

On the other hand, I am a long way off from being as important and recognized as these two.  Can I even attempt the paid consultant approach at this stage of my career, just a few years out of school, with no tenure-track position, no book in hand yet, and no major research articles in publication?  Would I (or any other comparable colleague) look like an arrogant bozo by demanding to be paid for consultations?  And either way, is it a good idea? usual, I can see both sides of the issue, leaving me in Tevye's position at 2:50.


  1. Remember that your time is valuable. Unless paid consulting = grants for university or publications for you, it should be a lower priority until you get tenure. After tenure, tell them F-you, pay me, should you decide to be of service.

    Personally, I do talk to the media for free. And I've advised the state gov't for free (putting both on my annual review as service). But I cannot imagine consulting for a for-profit company for free. That's ridiculous.

  2. I agree with Nicoleandmaggie. Don't forget that *they* contacted *you,* thus signifying that they found your expertise of value.

    We academics have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that our training and expertise do have some sort of significant value. If we ever collectively wised up, faculty salaries would skyrocket. What I can make in the government/corporate world is nearly double what I make now, which makes me wonder why I ever decided to pursue academe in the first place!

  3. Got your email, don't have a good answer, so we're throwing it up as an Ask the Grumpies on Friday. Hope that's ok!

    1. More than okay — I kind of wanted to ask you to do that, but chickened out!

  4. Random stranger from insidehighered here:

    Suppose you called them up and asked for information in their area of expertise: they'd charge you through the nose.

    1. Hi Paul! Thanks for the input — sounds like you're voting with Nicoleandmaggie and Hap on this. I think I'm pretty well convinced on this one now; the internet seems of a united mind on this issue.

  5. This is so bizarre! My husband just got an email from a for-profit asking for information too. Exactly this, "the firm wanted to pick my brain privately, via telephone, so that it could then turn around and represent my (hard-won!) expertise as theirs."

    Though this firm doesn't seem like it's connected to anything evil.