The cost of information being “free”

by morgan · 2 comments

 

Academics have a love-hate relationship with money that, I think, can sometimes impede forward progress.

I bring this up because of an email conversation with a friend and colleague of mine. I had asked this person about doing an interview for my online grant writing course, and I said I would compensate him for it. He’s someone who has done very well with grants.

He responded telling me that he was uncomfortable with the idea of “charging” for his grant writing wisdom.

I understand that because I previously held an attitude much like that.

Then I started a business (that one was to turn recycled plastics into kayaks and sailboards). It failed. I dumped thousands of hours into it, put my graduate work on hold, and spent 10′s of thousands of dollars on it – all down the tubes.

So I had to ask myself, what was the payoff for that investment? The reason I had made that investment in the first place was for the hope of a dual payoff:
1) Helping the world by finding good use for recycled plastics
2) Making some money in the process so that I didn’t have to scrape by any longer on a graduate student stipend

It didn’t work out. The only payoff was the lessons that I learned (boy, I can still remember that smell of plastic as it bakes in a rotomolding oven!). But I’d never have risked it if it were for just #1 alone. It was the combination of #1 and #2 that kept me going at it.

Flash forward to today. I’ve invested 100′s of hours creating a website, developing advice, working on a book. I’ve taken time away from my lab, from my family, and from my other business. I’ve been stressed out, up late many nights, and have taxed my finances to get it going. I haven’t done the one thing that I love most (whitewater kayaking) in well over a year. Instead, that time has been spent developing this content to help people (like #1 above).

Would I have done all this simply out of charity?

I’m sorry, no.

I like helping people. But there needs to be an economic payoff for doing so – particularly when it involves such a huge commitment. Number 2 above is an integral part of the equation.

If it were just a matter of giving a bit of advice here and there, I’d do that for free (and I often do, both on this blog and on my mailing list).

But when it comes to really helping people with a difficult skill like grantwriting – it takes more than just a few moments. I’ve spent at least 50 hours of my time developing my online grant writing course. And I continue to develop and refine it to try to improve the ways in which it helps people become better at expressing themselves.

I would never have committed that time to it if there weren’t some kind of economic payoff. I think it would be a bit crazy to help other people compete better against me in the pool for grants, just out of the kindness of my heart.

I do want to help, but setting up the infrastructure to really help people in a meaningful way costs money.

Have you ever wondered why, when you ask your colleagues for help, they often don’t have time to help you?

I’ve wondered about that often – and that question relates to this one of money.

As academics, we’re expected to do all sorts of stuff, “for free”. By “free,” I mean, doing things that don’t bring the grants in that often pay our salaries – things like teaching, mentoring, committee work, service work, etc. As a result of all the “free” stuff we do – it becomes very difficult to really do any of it very well, or very deeply.

Young scientists need a lot of mentoring. But that is another “free” activity on the part of the mentor. Some mentors find the time to do a lot of it anyway. Many do not. This is particularly true once you join the ranks of faculty. I had very little in the way of active mentoring. While I’ve made a big deal here of my interactions with Marshall Edgell, who helped me learn effective grant writing, we’re talking about 10-20 hours of total interaction over a span of 8 years. That’s not much.

Because it is “free”, it gets thrown in with all the other “free” stuff that needs to get done, of which there is always too much for the available time. So, it often doesn’t happen. I talked to at least four people at this NHGRI meeting I’ve been at who felt that they had almost no mentoring, and regretted the lack.

On the other hand, if someone comes to me and pays for consulting, or pays for my grant writing course, that changes the dynamic entirely. First, they’ve shown a serious commitment to get help. Second, I’ve now received their money, so I have a strong ethical and business imperative to deliver meaningful value for them. Am I perfect about that at all times? No – but I strive to get as close to that as I can, given my insanely busy life.

In fact, I’m now in the process of hiring an additional support person to keep up with all the issues with running a business like this (I already have one person helping out). That will free me up to develop new products. I have some great ideas to help you, but I can’t make them happen until I can free up some time.

And here’s the thing: I can’t pay those people with vapor. No, I have to pull out that checkbook and send off some big checks. That requires money flow, which requires charging for stuff. And if I’m charging for stuff, then I feel obliged to pay my interviewees for their time.

So, to help people in a deep way, I’ve concluded that there must be an exchange of money. Through that exchange, I’m able to help people more than the “free” model for two reasons:
1. I have a stronger imperative to do so through having received that money; and
2. The person on the other end is usually a better student, because they’ve made an investment of hard earned dollars to improve themselves, hence they strive to maximize the experience.

In contrast, I often see students in my department’s grant writing class taking the learning for granted. They won’t have to write “real” grants for many years (if ever). It is not an immediate need for them. Plus, it is paid for as a deduction from their stipend, so they never feel the pain of investing the money in the education that they’re getting. It feels “free” (even though it is technically not free), so it is not taken as seriously. If we made them pull out the checkbooks every semester for each class, they’d probably take it more seriously.

I think that there’s plenty of room in this world for good, free information. But for deep information that requires a real investment of time and energy to develop and keep up to date, the “free” model doesn’t work well.

At least I can’t figure out how it is supposed to work.

I think that by focusing too much on “free” sharing of information in academia, we’re forgetting the massive monetary infrastructure that supports that “free” – tuition, taxpayers, grants, etc. It is not actually free at all, but we think of it as free because we don’t see the costs.

As Mark Joyner talks about in Simpleology, it requires time, money, or energy to accomplish anything in life (or some combination thereof). Without one of those three, you’ve got nothing.

The only way I can think of to make the time available to help people is by getting paid to do so.

What do you think? Is there another way? Let me know in the comments.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian Risk

I agree that time-based things (eg. services such as grant writing courses, etc.) and physical products should not be free. It gets tricky with intellectual property. I suppose then the question is: when is “free’” less helpful to our science than not-free.

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admin

It is even trickier than that, because what if it is not “unique” IP, but it is packaged in a uniquely useful way?

As you know I’m all for open source (and my lab produces open source software), yet there are often limits with how far you can go with Open Source – particularly when it comes to issues like “ease of use.”

I believe there is a strong future in repackaging open source stuff into more useful form and charging for that (where allowed by licenses) .

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