Wait, How Do Academics Make Money?

I’ve been working on submitting one of my papers to a journal, which reminded me of the existence of publication fees. That in turn reminded me of a conversation I saw on tumblr a while back:


“beatonna” here is Kate Beaton, of the history-themed webcomic Hark! a Vagrant. She’s about as academia-adjacent as a non-academic gets, but even she thought that the academic database JSTOR paid academics for their contributions, presumably on some kind of royalty system.

In fact, academics don’t get paid by databases, journals, or anyone else that publishes or hosts our work. In the case of journals, we’re often the ones who pay publication fees. Those who write textbooks get royalties, but that’s about it on that front.

Kate Beaton’s confusion here is part of a more general confusion: in my experience, most people don’t know how academics are paid.

The first assumption is usually that we’re paid to teach. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone respond to someone studying physics or math with the question “Oh, so you’re going to teach?”

This one is at least sort of true. Most academics work at universities, and usually have teaching duties. Often, part of an academic’s salary is explicitly related to teaching.

Still, it’s a bit misleading to think of academics as paid to teach: at a big research university, teaching often doesn’t get much emphasis. The extent to which the quality of teaching determines a professor’s funding or career prospects is often quite minimal. Academics teach, but their job isn’t “teacher”.

From there, the next assumption is the one Kate Beaton made. If academics aren’t paid to teach, are they paid to write?

Academia is often described as publish-or-perish, and research doesn’t really “count” until it’s made it to a journal. It would be reasonable to assume that academics are like writers, paid when someone buys our content. As mentioned, though, that’s just not how it works: if anything, sometimes we are the ones who pay the publishers!

It’s probably more accurate (though still not the full story) to say that academics are paid to research.

Research universities expect professors not only to teach, but to do novel and interesting research. Publications are important not because we get paid to write them, but because they give universities an idea of how productive we are. Promotions and the like, at least at research universities, are mostly based on those sorts of metrics.

Professors get some of their money from their universities, for teaching and research. The rest comes from grants. Usually, these come from governments, though private donors are a longstanding and increasingly important group. In both cases, someone decides that a certain general sort of research ought to be done and solicits applications from people interested in doing it. Different people apply with specific proposals, which are assessed with a wide range of esoteric criteria (but yes publications are important), and some people get funding. That funding includes not just equipment, but contributions to salaries as well. Academics really are, in many cases, paid by grants.

This is really pretty dramatically different from any other job. There’s no “customer” in the normal sense, and even the people in charge of paying us are more concerned that a certain sort of work be done than that they have control over it. It’s completely understandable that the public rounds that off to “teaching” or “writing”. It’s certainly more familiar.


2 thoughts on “Wait, How Do Academics Make Money?

  1. Jacob Bourjaily

    As always, a great article.

    Fun fact: in the (seven page) book contract we signed for “Grassmannian Geometry of Scattering Amplitudes”, there was a clause specifying that we’d get 50% of the royalties if the book were made into a movie. I don’t think (or even know) if we’ve received any royalties from book sales (yet), but I’ve still got my fingers crossed about the film. Maybe Cumberbach to play the Grassmannian? 😉

    Liked by 2 people


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