Should academics do unpaid work to share their research? if so, when and how?


My comments on Twitter seemed to resonate with a lot of people. Other tweeters revealed that the same had happened to them and shared their experiences of giving ‘free’ labour to non-academic organisations.

Requests for expertise can take various forms, ranging from a chat on the phone, to giving presentations, to contributing to workshops to help devise interventions/programmes, to writing content.

Engaging with non-academic audiences has become more common as the ‘impact’ and ‘knowledge exchange’ agendas have gained prominence within HE; academics are supposed to build relationships with users of their research and share knowledge outside the academy. These “impact” and “public engagement” activities are hugely important and researchers whose work can be applied in these ways should be encouraged and incentivised.

However, what I have experienced – and what these tweets were inspired by – are difficulties clarifying when and how our knowledge should be shared, and what acknowledgement or recompense we should receive.

The responses to these tweet across both of my two research areas – classical music/music education; and sexual harassment in higher education – were similar, with academics and practitioners/consultants from both areas giving examples of this experience.

But of course not all organisations are the same. While I’ve found that music and music education organisations have generally offered to pay me for consultancy or training work, by contrast my work on sexual harassment in higher education has involved endless requests for free labour, time and time again, and sometimes these contributions are left unacknowledged. The experience that inspired the tweet above involved a third sector organisation requesting uncompensated half-day and a whole-day meetings (the latter in person, pre-pandemic) as well as asking for one-to-one calls to explain key issues to them personally. I agreed to do these because I wanted to make sure the resource being produced was research-informed and good quality, and because they were not-for-profit. But when these resources were produced, there was no acknowledgement or even notification of their publication to those of us (not only myself) who had given substantial input.

Another recent experience involved several hours of meetings with a large HE sector organisation to devise an agenda and specifications for their (paid) working group – but when I applied for the working group (after being invited to do so) my application was turned down. While I had wanted to help shape the agenda and use my research to make a difference, this just made me feel exploited.

A third organisation even took a presentation that myself and a colleague had given at an event they’d organised, removed our logo from the slides, and presented the material as their own work.

As these examples show, there are some issues around knowledge exchange and impact that tend to be left to individual academics to sort out for ourselves. Some of the most significant for me:

  • At many, if not most, institutions, it seems that this work supposed to occur in our research time (for those of us who even have research time in our workload). Realistically, impact and knowledge-exchange work could easily take up my entire research allocation. How much is enough, and what should we prioritise?
  • When we feed into commercial or third-sector product/service development, what kind of recognition should we be given? How much of this is our IP?

How can we tackle this issue?

  1. Say no?

This is not a great solution. For a start, we are encouraged by our organisations to foster external partnerships and carry out impact work, so we have to say yes to some of these requests – a blanket ‘no’ or even a selective ‘no’ goes against this imperative. More generally, the reason that I’m doing much of my research is to make change in the world, so of course I want to engage in impact and knowledge exchange work. What’s the point in doing our research if we are not going to use it to inform relevant conversations? A fear is that organisations will go about this work anyway, regardless of whether I engage, but that they will do a poorer job of it without my input. Another fear is of being left out of important conversations and developments that relate to my work, although that is receding as I gain in experience and move out of the ECR stage. Either way, the ‘say no’ solution places all the responsibility onto individuals, and as a result it doesn’t really help.

  • Assume that the work is paid and send information about fees

One suggestion on twitter was as follows:

This is not a strategy that I have used very often. Even as an erstwhile self-employed musician, a profession in which I had to become hardened to naming my hourly rate and bringing up the topic of money when others didn’t, I still find this challenging (and it’s probably more of a challenge for women as our work is less valued in society in general). An alternative is signposting the person to someone who doesn’t have a university salary and letting them know that this would need to be a paid opportunity – it’s easier to ask for money on behalf of someone else rather than oneself.

So, this is still an individualised strategy, but one that might be helpful.

  • Amend impact funding to include our time.

I’ve recently been awarded an impact grant from my institution but was explicitly told that my time cannot be included in the costings. This seems to be standard as far as I can tell; impact funding appears to be aimed at funding activities but not staff time, or at best hiring others to carry out the impact work. But a lot of what I do can’t be delegated to others because it requires my specific expertise. A clear and simple solution is that this time could be recognised in funding that is designed to support impact.

I’m not sure whether it’s UKRI (in my case the ESRC) or institutions who stipulate that impact funding shouldn’t go to academics’ time, but amending this requirement would be a really helpful step for those of us who are already embedded into institutions. It doesn’t really help for ECRs and precariously-employed academics, though, who may not have access to this type of funding.

This links into the final suggestion:

  • Devise a supportive framework for impact and knowledge exchange in our institutions and the sector more broadly.

The HE sector needs collective and institution-level approaches.

I am sure I’m not the only one who would like to be able to keep offering ‘free’ labour wherever it’s needed (‘free’ in inverted commas because it is paid for by ourselves – by working extra hours – or in institutional time snatched from other duties). And where I’m supporting other activists, or individuals who can’t get this support elsewhere (such as sexual misconduct complainants) I am happy to do this to the extent I can manage. However, when these requests for our time come from established organisations, we need a clearer protocol from our institutions. Are we supposed to do this work, in our research time, in return for a supporting statement for a (future, imaginary) impact case study? Should we do this work as paid consultants, through the institution? Or should it be limited to consultancy work at evenings/weekends/annual leave, but we should charge an hourly/daily rate? Certainly, if I had some guidance from my institution I’d have more courage in asking for an appropriate rate for my expertise from organisations that can afford it, and this also sets a helpful precedent for those who don’t have permanent or full-time positions in recognising academic expertise as valuable so that they can also get paid for their time and expertise.

Regarding other forms of recognition of our contributions and knowledge, there are particular concerns for social sciences and humanities academics. In STEM disciplines there is a more established framework for registering IP but in humanities and social sciences, IP is more difficult to pinpoint and we don’t have the legal protection conferred by patents. Our organisations – and funders – could do more to consider how to protect all of the IP across the full range of disciplines.

For myself, and in the absence of an institutional response, I’ve reached the end of my tether with certain organisations who I’ve given days if not weeks of my time to, for nothing, and often with minimal or no acknowledgement. (But thank you to those organisations who do recognise and compensate my time!) For the immediate future I’m going to try and find ways to be more intentional about when and why I do free labour and prioritise doing this for groups and individuals who don’t have resources, which will mean saying no to large organisations. In the longer term, I’d like to see funders and research councils take up this issue as well as clearer guidance from institutions about where we are supposed to find the time to do our impact and knowledge exchange work.

Author Bio: Dr Anna Bull is a  Lecturer in Education and Social Justice at the University of York and co-director of research and campaign organisation The 1752 Group