I call bullshit on pointless ‘hope labour’

About 30% of my work week is classified as ‘service’: work that supports others in the community, such as sitting on committees, writing reviews and references, consulting on problems and so on. As a result of this higher than usual level of service work, the sheer number and range of things I do in a day can be bewildering.

Sometimes I feel like I work behind the counter at an academic delicatessen serving an endless line of hungry customers. Three thin slices of policy analysis? No problem. 100 grams of soothing hurt feelings about the feedback your supervisor gave you on that draft? I can do that for you – and I’ll throw in a book recommendation too. A medium size container of problem solving? How about a large one with a hand full of diplomacy? It’s on special this week!

Keeping up with all the multiple, sometimes conflicting demands is hard. Unfortunately all the people standing in the line at my academic delicatessen are invisible to each other and have no idea how busy I am. Sometimes I feel like I am flinging packages of intellectual cheese and salami at people at random. Then, into all this frantic motion, walks in that one customer. If you’ve worked in retail you know the sort. Their demand to be served right now seems thoughtlessly entitled given how many other customers are waiting for service.

This week that customer was a journal publisher asking for yet another peer review. “Can’t you SEE I’m busy!” I yelled at the screen.

To give you some context to my annoyance, in case you didn’t know already, the conventional academic publishing system is seriously flawed. Many academic journals are owned by corporations that leverage the free labour of academics into ‘share holder value’. This is a way of privatising public money that has many ramifications for our universities, as I have written about at more length elsewhere (see “The academic writer’s strike”).

I’m conflicted about publishing in journals because the system seems so broken. So I approach the problem using a simple formula. For every submission to a journal, regardless of whether it gets accepted or not, I do at least two reviews. In this way, in theory, I give back pretty much what I ask. But somehow it never works out that way – I always do more peer reviews than I planned.

So, despite my annoyance, I read this peer review request carefully. Unlike most of the requests I get, the paper was about research students. So I asked myself a harder question: does the paper actually look important? A quick read of the abstract indicated it was about supervision. There is a lot – I mean a LOT – published about research supervision. This one would have to be something special to convince me to spend time on it and unfortunately it wasn’t. Yet another, very small scale institutional case study. I’ve read masses of these and in my opinion, they don’t offer much more than what we already know, so I pressed ‘decline’.

So far, so normal, but the link in the email immediately redirected to a request for me to refer the paper on to a colleague. This is when I got cranky at my demanding customer. Please bear in mind, I was tired. It was 11pm and I had been working in my academic delicatessen since 10am. For some reason the immediate request that I pass this on to yet another over worked colleague rubbed me the wrong way. I wrote a rather snippy reply, which you can see in the image below:

In case you can’t read it, my response was as follows:

“(the reason I declined is) The burden of reviewing, frankly. I have a policy of only performing the same number of reviews that I ask from the community. I have submitted 4 papers for peer review this year and therefore was planning to do 8 (assuming there are two reviewers on each paper). However, I’ve already 18 this year and it’s only July. By the by, I have noticed the quality of reviews of my papers are dropping, which suggests more and more inexperienced academis are taking up the slack – probably without adequate support and mentoring. If the system is to survive, the business model really needs to be addressed. This is not a problem specific to your journal, but I thought I would point it out since you asked”

To be clear my comment wasn’t meant to infer that people who are inexperienced are always bad reviewers, or that experienced academics are necessarily great at it, but the overall drop in quality needs some explanation. That more inexperienced academics are being drawn into reviewing seems as good a reason as any; at least, it’s consistent with the general culture in academia of pushing un-wanted work onto junior colleagues.

I posted my rant to Twitter and Facebook and got a deluge of responses. Most people agreed with my sentiments, but some took issue with my interpretation and even called me selfish – a charge I reject whole-heartedly. Some people on editorial boards told me they had already reviewed 40 or 50 papers because people like me were hitting the ‘decline’ button more and more. Others told me that the reviews they got were dropping in quality too (a memorable line from a review received by a colleague in statistics was “what is this p-value thingy?”).

Look – I could be wrong. If anyone has any evidence that something else is going on, I’d love to hear it in the comments, but let’s assume for a moment that more and more junior colleagues are being asked to provide journals with peer reviews because senior people like me are not contributing enough anymore. What is the problem here really?

With my fulltime wage comes the expectation I will give back to my community and that my employer will be supportive. However, many early career academics have insecure employment and PhD candidates are on very low incomes. If these less advantaged academics are being asked to take up the slack, they are effectively being asked to prop up a disintergrating publishing system with their free labour. A system, I might add, that is also experiencing enormous growth due to pressure by our employers to have ‘outputs’ and, presumably, the publishing company share holders, who want to pocket the profits.

What are the consequences for the individual and academia more generally? More importantly, as a PhD student, how should you respond to this pressure?

‘Service work’, such as peer reviewing, is often presented to our junior colleagues as an ‘opportunity’ to add to the CV, not what it really is: free labour in the expectation of some kind of other, unspecified reward later on. In a recent paper I wrote with colleagues we called this type of work ‘hope labour’ (following Kuehn & Corrigan, 2013 – reference at the end of this post).

Asking people to contribute hope labour walks a fine line between providing opportunity and exploitation. In my view, before a PhD student or a paid-by-the-hour (or ‘gigging’) academic says “yes” to any service work request, it’s worth asking a few questions:

  1. If you have not done this kind of service work before: is this a good opportunity to develop new skills?
  2. If you have done this kind of work, how exactly does doing more of it benefit you?
  3. Will the service work be recognised in some way?
  4. Does this service work help you build your network in such a way that might lead to future (paid) opportunities?

If you can confidentally answer “yes” any one of these questions, the service work is probably worth doing. Now, let’s subject peer review requests to this rubric.

Aside from (potentially) keeping you abreast of new developments in the field, after you have done enough peer reviewing to get a sense of it, I question whether most PhD students or gigging academics should do more. I think the time is better spent reading over your colleagues’ manuscripts instead. Providing helpful feedback to those around you is a way of building a community of support and collegiality that is of immediate benefit to everyone, including you (as the saying goes, you have to earn the right to ask a favour). So, unless the paper promises to be fascinating, after you’ve done four or five peer reviews you might want to start saying “no” more often than “yes”.

Recognition can take many forms other than money: a certificate, the right to claim an association, a free lunch – whatever. One of the key problems with peer reviewing is there is little or no recognition. Journals sometimes send form letters as a thank you – but most often you get nothing. If you review regularly with a particular journal it’s worth asking for a testimonial from the editor saying you did a good job. If they are not willing to do this, seriously consider a blanket “no” in the future. Trust me there will always be others asking for your time.

From the academic networking point of view, peer reviewing for a journal is virtually useless. The whole point of peer reviewing is to be invisible, so your work will go largely un-noticed as well as unrewarded. Unless you have some kind of ongoing relationship with a member of a journal’s editorial board, very few of the people who matter to your future career are seeing you work and, more importantly, getting to know what you can do. Why not volunteer to be on an organising committee for a conference instead? This enables you to meet people and work alongside them – crucial for building networks that might eventually lead to paid employment.

So I call bullshit on journal publishers’ endless demands for hope labour, especially from PhD students. I recognise that academia needs a gift economy to operate, but it should be full time academics like myself doing the lion’s share – and I should not have to work past 11pm at night to satisfy the demands of for-profit companies. If you’re a fulltime academic, or a member of an editorial board, I hope you think carefully about the opportunity you are really offering before you invite someone with less status and salary than yourself to do extra work. And seriously, if we can’t keep this shop open without people being decently compensated for their work, we might want to think about closing the doors on our current model of peer review publishing – for good.

What do you think? Maybe you disagree? Maybe you can shed some light on the problem? Or perhaps you want to share your experience of hope labour to help others work out what work to accept and which to reject. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Related posts

The academic writers’ strike


Kuhen, K & Corrigan TF 2013, ‘Hope labor: The role of employment prospects in online social production’, The Political Economy of Communication, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 9-25.

33 thoughts on “I call bullshit on pointless ‘hope labour’

  1. Great post. These things should be said out loud. “Hope labourers” like PhD students often feel like they can’t take the risk to refuse… Personally I’m thinking of quitting academia because it seems to ask a lot and offer very little hope in return… even though i’m passionate about teaching and research. So thank you for pointing out the flaws of the system. It gives me hope that at least some academics care!

  2. Hi G, This is really interesting, about questioning the advantage to an individual to do peer reviewing. By her criteria, there isn’t much value. She suggests time would be better spent reviewing colleagues work. I had never offered to review your stuff because I’m not a good editor, but I can review for other things like flow of argument and gaps. Do we have a secure enough relationship to do that for each other? See you at the office, Rxo


  3. Having read at least 100 articles for a lit review (paid for), I’m pretty sure I could write a bang-up review. However, like you, I’m concerned about the assumption that academics will peer review for free. I can’t afford to take at least 2 hours out of my (mostly unpaid) day to read, analyse, then write a review that might be useful to the author. I need the money, thanks.

  4. As a slight diversion from the intention of this article. If you are working 13 hour days on a regular basis perhaps this is part of the problem. Until academics say no to outrageous workloads there will never be enough time and there will be less jobs for new postgrads coz current academics are trying to do all of it.

  5. As a slight diversion from the intention of this article. If you are working 13 hour days on a regular basis perhaps this is part of the problem. Until academics say no to outrageous workloads there will never be enough time and there will be less jobs for new postgrads coz current academics are trying to do all of it.

  6. There’s a lot in this. I suspect the rise of inexperienced reviewers is true, and yet the experienced reviewers saying “I do so many more reviews now!” are also right. Why? Because academia is expanding at the bottom: there are far more postgraduate students and postdocs fighting to establish some security, but the number of more senior people is not expanding to keep pace, so proportionally more submissions and reviews have to be done by juniors.

    This is exacerbated by the fact that the whole gift-economy structure of academia is mismatched with the corporate-efficiency management that it is increasingly being pushed into, by both administrators and governments. Service work like reviewing just doesn’t show up on the books.

    One solution is to say, ok, if you’re going to manage this like a business then we should structure this work like a normal job. Pay people to do peer reviewing etc, or don’t expect them to do it. Don’t do free labour for for-profit enterprises! But even if we wanted to transition to that model, how we get from here to there is hard to see.

    • Some really salient points.

      Just make work paid. It’s not hard. This kind of invisible work needs to be acknowledged – it’s done in the corporate world. Academia seems to be taking the worst from both worlds in so many ways.

      And then, as you say, there are so many desperate juniors, and the message you get as a PhD student is that you’ll be lucky to get a job at all. Meanwhile senior academics use juniors to “co-author” pieces, and exploit the surplus of labour and desperation for a job.

      • As an editor, I agree that peer review work should be paid or at least this option could be explored. The question is who should pay? Currently the only indirect remuneration comes through workload models at universities. I have thought about how we may pay reviewers directly from the journal, but this requires the journal actually having the resources to pay. In most cases, this would require the journal owner (often a learned society/university) to dedicate funds to peer reviewers, rather than the editors, journal operating costs or the other activities of the owner (such as subsidising a conference or reducing membership fees to the society). I don’t know, but I suspect some journal owners are not aware of the details of financial details in the contracts with commercial publishers, but if they were more aware, they could get more $ for the journal rather than the publisher.

    • very true- there is a mismatch in scales and productivity timelines between lab based research and the management culture that is springing up around it.
      Management doesn’t seem to account for the fact that Science is fundamentally a creative art. Most lab work requires the kind of flexibility that may see small labs ‘go quiet’ for a year or so, while they develop truly new science.
      Whilst there are some efficiencies of scale (a big lab is never ‘quiet’ because it has students/postdocs to burn) this has the perverse outcome that it generates a pool of highly specialized insecure labour with few opportunities for promotion (an open invitation to corruption/ falsification/nepotism). Research started on a community model where reputation and community service was recognized- with the huge number of labs there are today- this reputational aspect is diluted, as much as we try to build easily accessible routes to patrol reputation like pubpeer etc.

  7. Loved this piece, and loved the honestly. It’s not about being selfish, it’s about self-interest, and building concrete networks. The point above seems really valid – academia seems to be stuck between a pay for service model, with the old relics of free labour (without the perks, such as secure tenure, freedom to write) still being expected. Thanks for calling it out and speaking honestly about this situation.

  8. I know a lot of burned out overworked academics who are publishing, peer reviewing, performing more than their job descriptions and not getting much enjoyment or perks from it. I get more depressed about the prospect of an academic career eventuating . I am a doctoral candidate and while I am close to finishing I have no idea what I might end up doing for work. I think the deli job sounds good. I might get to take leftovers home.

    • In a very similar situation to you, above. And hopefully, I can find a network of supportive women in my future job, unlike the academia I see now. I’m so tired of being mansplained (I worked for years in a high-power job prior to PhD) and am now expected to do work for free, (arrange conferences, keep twitter account up to date, even write texts used with little recognition) without thanks or reward. I have now stopped doing all of those things.

      And although I have an amazing network of female academics cheering me on and helping me through, the culture where I am is extremely masculine and there is a lot of appendage swinging a LOT of the time. Women are expected to grovel, do what is asked, and not expect any remuneration or even thanks. In one case, what was required even went further (not me). Nobody was held accountable, the supervisor was just quietly removed. The power imbalance is massive, and many PhD students are ripe for exploitation.

      I’m too old for this. The corporate world has developed beyond this in many ways – I feel I’ve fallen back into some caveman politic.

      • I know exactly what you mean but for me I am working with mostly women who have a lot of power, so there are different appendages swinging. I have been denied publication working as a research assistant and lost the will to publish now. I am looking at going into the corporate world afterwards as the title of my degree sounds better than it really is.

  9. Yeah, I’ve heard about those situations, too. I’m so sorry to hear that. I’ve had no trouble publishing (much to the chagrin of my superiors who view it as a threat). It’s one of the most fun parts of the PhD – actually being part of a conversation. Why you wouldn’t want someone you mentor to have that is beyond me.

    I hear you, oh I hear you.

  10. A very important issue and I am delighted that someone in a visible role has the guts to say it. May the discussion soon rise from a few lone voices to a rowdy rabble. Profiting from free labour of academics should be something long gone now that academic journals are so profitable. They are hidden behind paywalls so the taxpayer who contributes so much towards research cannot read the outcomes.

  11. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve said. I have a career in Learning and Development and just finished a PhD in Health Psychology.

    I became disenchanted with the idea of working in academia due to many of the reasons you stated above: the expectation that I would do free work for “experience”. Since I have experience and can make money out of everything I do in my career, I constantly knocked back “opportunities” (read slave labor opportunity) to do posters, be a reviewer, attend anything where I should be paid, but instead feel exploited.

    I have returned to working in Learning and Development and get paid very, very well for everything I do. There is never a mention of working for free to get “experience”. I am paid while I’m learning something new or brushing up on my skills.

    Academia needs to start paying students as well.

  12. Hi. Great article! I know we are all busy and underpaid and under pressure and in competition. But, what about the science here? I peer-review, although yes sometimes reluctantly and with delay, because it matters to me to participate in the collective endeavour to make better science and to make science better. Peer reviewing has many flaws and journals or actually publishers are not blameless. But us scientists should thrive to work towards a better system nevertheless. It could start with publishing reviews and reviewers names alongside articles and building metrics measuring the quality of peerreviews (like in Peerage of Science) that commitees and agencies and institutions could then aknowledge when hiring or promoting their scientists.

    • As editor of a journal, I think this is a great initiative. I am working with our commercial publisher (Taylor and Francis) to integrate the online review process with Publons as best as possible to make it easier for our peer reviewers. I am optimistic that one day Publons will provide a verified data source for demonstrating the great commitment reviewers have made to the scientific community and that this will be used by universities in their personnel decisions.

  13. I also agree and I think what is even worse is that in some sectors (for example health) the majority of journals charge a publishing fee. As a low-paid PhD student that’s not part of a bigger, funded project these fees have to come out of my own pocket. Often I cannot even try to submit to some higher impact factor journals because the publishing fee is prohibitive.

  14. Agree with everything you have said. Interested in your comment
    ‘academia needs a gift economy to operate’. I’m not sure why reviewers can’t be paid since journals are making money. I am self-employed now (my brief academic ‘career’ consisted of a PhD and a postdoc) and if I didn’t charge for my time I would have no income. I do some work for free from time to time but I get to choose what and when they are. Reviewing a manuscript requires a high level of knowledge, a great deal of skill and a large amount of time. People who do that task should be paid. Perhaps the quality of the reviews would be better too if reviewers felt that they were valued.

    • I agree that paying reviewers is a good idea. Not all journals make money and I wonder what the implications would be if those which made money paid their reviewers? Would reviewers prioritise these journals? Probably, and by choosing to review for some journals over others, it would make it more difficult for new journals to compete with the established ones.

  15. This is an important and complex topic. As an editor myself (of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, not the journal you are referring to) I found this blog post a bit off the mark. I would prefer invited reviewers to simply “decline” the invitation if they are too busy. We understand reviewers are busy. All I ask is that reviewers quickly decide whether or not to review, and then if they commit, they should provide the review within the timeframe or seek more time. I don’t think offering the option to provide a reason or suggest an alternative reviewer is a great burden. Frankly, I don’t get why you felt so cranky about this optional feedback. I don’t know how I would have reacted to your response, other than think hesitate to “burden” you with an invitation to review again, which is perhaps your purpose of writing the response. How do you think the editor reacted to your comment?

    If you are to set an arbitrary limit to your number of peer reviews, then I’d hope you would prioritise reviewing for the journals which:
    a. You have previously published in/submitted to
    b. You respect.

    That way, at least the good journals get rewarded by having their preferred reviewers. I have much more to say on this, but just to be clear, it is the editor (representing the journal owner, which is usually a learned society, not the commercial publisher) who asks for the peer review. The editor is generally a fellow academic. Often the work is unpaid or very poorly paid when accounting for all of the invisible work. I also encourage you and others to use Publons to keep track of your reviews. At least they will no longer be invisible. Clarivate Analytics now publish the top reviewers, akin to the highly cited (HiCi) researcher list.

  16. Inger, as an individual who also does a lot of service work (albeit in other domains) I understand precisely your predicament and the demands on your time, and I suspect it is the lot of the person who is both enormously capable and deeply cares.

    As for publication the whole system is deeply flawed. Well if you’re an academic, that is – it works marvellously for the publishing houses, and their shareholders but that’s about it. Even the universities and research institutions are at a disadvantage given the fees they pay for the right to access journals. It’s a system that needs to be dismantled, but that would require a lot of courage from a lot of people and places, and I don’t think we’re there yet. Calling it out is a must meanwhile, looking at Open Access and other options (if they exist) is too.

  17. None of this surprising given 1) moral hazards created by “publish or perish” none the least of which is “quality be damned;” dwindling communities of tenured profs with sufficient knowledge/cred in their fields to offer a fair/reasonable contribution of quality peer review.

  18. One part of peer review is improving papers and/or encouraging rigorous and worthwhile approaches to problems through the feedback. It is an opportunity to contribute to the self correction that science (my discipline) should be constantly undertaking. Sure, it is a small brick in a large edifice, and people are making money off you, but career choice as a scientist is not just about making money … maybe for an “academic” (as distinct from an ‘ist or ‘orian) it is different, but there is an element of common good here as well. The knowledge ecosystem is not just a sum of financial transactions.

  19. Hi, could just ask you to check the spelling of your ref author, Kuehn. I know this problem as sweat labour and associate it with filmmaking and voluntary work. The other side of the problem would be institutions so strapped for cash they can not pay PhD students but won’t allow them to volunteer or contribute for nothing.

  20. I follow the example of lawyers and others – lawyers generally have about 50 pro-bono hours a year – being generous – I have 70.

    Anything that involves free labour comes out of the pot – once they are gone for the year they are gone.

    I’m an employee, I plan to retire at a decent age, I’m not going to do that doing freebies for mega-corp publishing.

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