Should scholars have to ask for honorariums? It depends

November 11, 2021

This past week, in a small corner of the twitterverse, a mild storm erupted. This squall centered on a reply written by a junior African American faculty member. The academic, who works at a top ten private university, expressed displeasure with being asked to give a face-to-face lecture at another university, (not in a conference venue), in his area of expertise, and not be paid an honorarium as compensation or recognition for his time and effort.

Judging by the numerous responses and some of the tangents that posters engaged in, regardless of the scholarly discipline, the issue about giving uncompensated papers, speeches or talks at an external venue was bounded by six main arguments. Although not the result of a rigorous content analysis, here is what I believe were the principal arguments of the posters:

Delivering speeches without the expectation of honoraria takes place in lots of fields beyond academia

Some people said that giving talks for free to external audiences is not unique to academia and happens in both the nonprofit and corporate world. The implication here is academics should not feel singled out.

Giving free talks to external audiences is what scholars do

Other replies argued that our profession, regardless of payment, or how much or how little we are paid, requires and enables us to do this sort of free labor. Thus, we should not expect to be compensated for giving uncompensated talks to external audience. By extension the dissemination of our ideas should take primacy over economic compensation.

Giving papers to external audiences increases our prestige and network, thus getting an honorarium should be a secondary consideration

Some of the responders indicated that giving speeches (without remuneration) is an excellent opportunity to showcase our work, disseminate our ideas, possibly help us to improve our reputation (thus value) both at our university and beyond, part of the activism they engage in, and refusing to give a paper primarily because an external venue refuses to pay an honorarium is counterproductive to your career.

Some institutions don’t have money in their budgets to give speakers an honorarium

Another argument was that some institutions where you might give a talk may not have the budget to pay honorariums to external speakers. Although this may be true, with some colleges and universities, the labor involved in setting up and receiving an honorarium, regardless of how paltry it may be, is often a nightmare of epic proportions. It requires those extending the invitation to coordinate with “the right people” in the organization, to give them the correct form/s to fill out, the correct way etc. In the end the inviter, may not want to go through the hassle, and just tells the speaker that there is no honorarium.

People of Color (POC) are exploited by academic institutions and lack of honorariums hits POC more than it does white scholars

Another frequent reply suggested that minority faculty are often asked by their departments, colleges, and universities to do more uncompensated service than their white colleagues. This exploitation exists in some part because POC academics are asked to serve on or chair “diversity” committees, searches, and participate on university panels that bring attention to “racial disparities” in some shape or form, etc. The logical extension of this argument was that POC academics are disproportionately asked to give papers at external institutions in which their efforts are uncompensated (i.e., no honorarium) than their white counterparts.

Academics are expected to donate lots of free labor or non-compensated service

Among the most constant arguments were that as academics, most people do not know the kinds and amount of “uncompensated” service that faculty do in their departments, colleges, university, for their learned organizations and in the community. And if they did they would be surprised.

Few people outside of academia, realize that doing service usually competes against the instructing and research that are the core of our professional responsibilities at our academic institutions.

Over the past few years, this squabble has come to head, in the case of peer reviewing papers for academic journals owned by multinational corporations (with expectations of increasingly rapid turnaround times) that make money off our free labor, or even rich foundations, that ask us to review grant proposals.

Summing up: Moving on

What’s clear is that there is considerable misperception both inside and outside academia about the kind of work and incentive structures of academics, and the variety of institutions from R1 to comprehensive.

It’s our choice however if we want to give a lecture to a colleagues’ class, or a public presentation at another venue. And over the years some targets where we give these lectures have sometimes paid us an honorarium or even a speaking fee. Hell they may have even taken us out to a fancy dinner or two.

In most cases, however, the honoraria are seldom adequate for the time and effort on travel, and honoraria vary from one location to another.

The need or desire by faculty to do uncompensated speeches at other institutions is ultimately a personal cost benefit calculation. It depends on how you perceive your role as an academic (is it just a job or is it a career), your perceived status, competing demands on your time, including the predicted or actual amount of disruption you may incur to your life (i.e., cancelling or rescheduling of classes), and perhaps disruption to your significant other, families, or pet may experience, including other resources you will expend getting there and back and your competing demands at any given time.

I think it’s okay to ask for an honorarium, but at the same time I don’t believe that we should expect to receive one either.

That being said, we should also not feel constrained about saying ‘no’.

Photo Credit

Richard Feynman letter (1965 Noble Prize recipient for physics)