the tragedy of the fabios

For most of my years as an academic, I’ve been lucky in terms of time management. While I felt stress, it was not be because I was out of time, except for those times when I had a baby at home. Then, this semester it really, really hit – professor overload. Every month, I’d get four to five reviews for journals. Just in the last semester, I’d get about one book manuscript review a month. Then, book review requests, letters of recommendations, and oodles of other stuff. I haven’t even gotten to my regular committee work, teaching, research, or mentoring graduate students. Of course, this is a blessing. It means that people value my input on various issues. But it’s also imposing a cost.

I mentioned this to a colleague, who said it was a tragedy of the commons issue. Professors are a free resource. The university pays our salary, but we work for others for free. Journal reviews are free (in soc, at least). Book reviews (for presses and journals) are free or very low cost. We don’t charge for our time on committees. Students who ask for a paper regrade do so for free. The solution is obvious – charge by the hour! So the next time someone asks you to do committee work, be ready with your rate and the requests will be more considerate.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 13, 2013 at 4:08 am

Posted in academia, fabio

13 Responses

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  1. Students c. 18th century ish used to pay their professors directly.


    Graham Peterson

    January 13, 2013 at 4:32 am

  2. Graham, you owe me $5.



    January 13, 2013 at 4:33 am

  3. Dig it.


    Graham Peterson

    January 13, 2013 at 4:41 am

  4. I totally sympathize with the problem, and recognize that your proposal is at least partially tongue in cheek. However I feel I should point out that in medical schools everything is charged for, and down to the 1% effort. People are often on numerous grants and projects for 1%, 2%, 5% effort — which means, in effect, that there is no surplus time for use in the various public-good services you outline. Manuscript reviews happen on personal time, other stuff doesn’t happen at all unless deans cough up percent effort. I think that has really sucked the intellectual spirit out of academic medicine, to overgeneralize.



    January 13, 2013 at 9:38 pm

  5. Fabio,

    I’m a member of the AJS book review committee and have personally seen you being recommended for a book review. In fact, I’ve put you on a short list of book reviewers myself. In our minds, we’re not asking you to give up your valuable time to provide enlightened feedback on a book we feel is worth pointing out to our readers. We are asking you as someone who is particularly knowledgeable and trustworthy about an area of expertise to comment and frame a book that we have determined to be an unquestionable contribution to the theory and methods of sociology. We feel like your review of a book is a stamp on its sociological merit and we publish whatever good or bad you have to say. We ask you your thoughts because we believe others care what you think and you can adjudicate the main point of a what we feel is an undeniable sociological book. I don’t pretend to speak for other publications and I know we’re at the bottom of your list of priorities, but we seek you out because we believe you can help us referee what is important sociology.

    We always appreciate your time,
    AJS book reviewer


    Book Reviewer

    January 14, 2013 at 6:39 am

  6. Book Reviewer,

    It’s a polite comment and its sentiment would be flattering to any academic, but don’t you think there’s something to the argument that many presses, particularly the for-profit houses that publish some academic books and an increasing number of academic journals, are making out like bandits with the profits they pull in that are largely achieved by exploiting the free labor of referees? A recent Chronicle editorial suggested that referees should continue to review pro bono for non-profit houses and university presses, but begin charging hourly rates for reviews solicited by the likes of Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis, etc.

    I think a balance can and should be found between service to the discipline and profiteering.



    January 15, 2013 at 2:33 am

  7. Frederik Marain

    January 15, 2013 at 8:15 am

  8. Fabio,

    As someone awaiting doctoral admissions decisions, I’m curious: what are the professional consequences of refusing such requests? Does your post imply the hierarchy of importance for your work? For example, would you rank journal reviews first, book manuscript reviews second, book review requests third, and so on for their order of appearance in your post? Could be a revealing survey for professors…


    Nicholas Poggioli

    January 18, 2013 at 2:29 am

  9. Frederik, that story about James Buchanan is quite inspiring.


    Nicholas Poggioli

    January 18, 2013 at 2:33 am

  10. Nicholas:

    In my experience, refusing these requests seems to carry very little consequence. If a journal takes in 200-300 papers a year, like a major social science journal, then editors won’t remember if you turned down a request. Perhaps book editors may notice, but a press may only ask for a review from an author every few years. For example, I published with Johns Hopkins, but I have only been asked to review one book for them. In fact, this is what probably explains the problems journals often have in processing papers. There is a huge reward for getting published but little reward for helping others and no punishing for free riding. When I was working for AJS, I often used the data base of review requests to find reviewers and found that many successful academics simply refused all requests for reviews. Also, you noticed an obvious pattern – pre-tenure folks often accepted requested, then there a sharp drop off after tenure.

    In terms of rank, I have no strong preference on type of request (book review vs. journal article review), but I do have preference in terms of topic. I’ll often demure a paper if it is fairly generic. For example, some journals will ask me to review any paper that is about organizations. So if I am overloaded, I’ll only do it if they give me a long deadline. But if it is a topic where reviewers are scarce, I’ll always do it without exception. For example, I always review papers on black politics and higher education. I am the expert, so I have a duty and interest in seeing the paper get a fair and speedy review. And finally, if the source offers to pay – even only $50 for a book review – I am happy to help!



    January 18, 2013 at 3:19 am

  11. Can’t you just solve this with heuristics? E.g. “I will only review 1 paper every 2 months.” Then it’s easy to know if you’ve already done enough.

    Well, knowing how many X’s to set for the quota is an issue, but that’s a good one to ask colleagues about, right?



    January 18, 2013 at 5:45 am

  12. Erica, that is exactly what I do now. In the last two or three months, I only accept a paper a month. That has helped enormously.



    January 18, 2013 at 5:47 am

  13. Thanks for your reply, Fabio.


    Nicholas Poggioli

    January 18, 2013 at 4:46 pm

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