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Barriers, sustained

Our little open academic publishing niche needs to talk about the link between underpayment, sustainability, and equity.

Published onAug 15, 2022
Barriers, sustained

Since I started working in academic-adjacent industries about 7 years ago, I’ve been making significantly less money than I could if I had worked at a private tech or STM publishing firm during that time. And I’m pretty lucky, because thanks to our funders’ trust and our new sustainability model, KFG is able to do decently when it comes to competing with tech industry salaries and benefits, and pretty well when compared to for-profit academic publishing roles. Based on the job listings with salary ranges I see posted frequently, I suspect the situation is worse for most of our friends and partners who build infrastructure (not to mention most of the users of our products).

To be sure, underpaying isn’t just an open academic publishing infrastructure issue. It’s a longstanding issue with the entire non-profit industrial complex. And it’s way beyond my capabilities to fully understand it or offer solutions.

But what I can say with some confidence is that it’s a uniquely troubling problem in my little niche of open academic publishing infrastructure. Despite the community spending a huge amount of time, money, and energy over the last several years focusing on sustainability and equity, I’ve seen little attention paid to, well, pay. Sure, working groups talk about it in conventional non-profit terms, like the percentage spent on personnel. But these conversations rarely, in my experience, address whether we’re paying people enough to meaningfully compete with industry for expensive specialized talent. In fact, many of these discussions tend to suggest the opposite: that infrastructure non-profits try to do more with less so they don’t risk out-growing their funders’ ability to support them.

That’s a shame, because in addition to leading to a false understanding of true sustainability, underpayment is a structural justice issue. People who can afford to work for below-market pay tend to be, well, more like me: privileged and affluent. And so the more we focus on technical, keep-the-lights-on sustainability and avoid addressing what real, deep sustainability would look like, the deeper of an equity hole we dig for the ecosystem.

Again, it’s beyond me to offer much of a solution, except to note that it will likely need to be systemic. Ideally, I’d like builders and funders to reset expectations a bit by having very direct, transparent, and collaborative conversations about what deep sustainability for an individual non-profit infrastructure builder, and the ecosystem as a whole, looks like — and critically, how sustainability intersects with equity. Unless and until that happens, I fear the ecosystem will likely continue to struggle to accomplish its goals of replacing extractive for-profit publishing with a more effective and equitable community-based alternative.

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