Academic freelancing growth ‘could damage researcher development’

Study finds that some scholars can earn lucrative rewards from international contracts, but may deprive domestic postgraduates of vital experience

January 8, 2020
Source: Getty
Some soloists may gain, but outsourcing could hurt young scholars

Research suggests that academics can gain lucrative rewards from international freelance work but warns that the embrace of such outsourcing by universities raises ethical questions about the use of public funds and the possible narrowing of career options for local scholars.

The preliminary study examined the hourly rates and earnings of 427 academic freelancers on the freelance website Upwork and found that although three-quarters had received little or no income, 42 scholars had earned in excess of $10,000 (£7,600) for their freelance work and 10 had netted more than $50,000. Just over a third (35 per cent) were based in North America.

One Russia-based academic researcher on the platform, who advertised a $40 hourly rate, had earned more than $200,000 from 40 freelance jobs.

Examples of academic projects on Upwork include writing journal publications, white papers or literature reviews, according to the study, which was presented last month at the conference of the UK’s Society for Research into Higher Education.

Freelancers in Oceania advertised the highest average rates, $53 an hour, followed by $42 in North America and the UK, while those in east Asia displayed the lowest average rates, $20 an hour.

However, the paper says, academics in high-income countries will generally earn less from freelancing than regular, or even casual, academic employment, while the rates of those from less developed regions might exceed what their local university could offer.

Peter Bentley, a policy adviser at Innovative Research Universities, a coalition of seven Australian institutions, and the author of the study, said that academic freelancing was an “emerging market and could well grow” but this raised “many ethical issues”.

While freelancing websites enabled academics to use their specialised skills in a larger global market with no border constraints, they also threatened the traditional scholarly career development process as some tasks typical of research assistant positions became open to international freelance competition, he said.

“Using public research funds to pay freelancers may increase ‘bang for buck’ from public funds in the short term, but at the cost of long-term domestic research development,” he said.

“It could limit the opportunity for early career researchers and PhD students to engage in research projects in their local environment.”

Dr Bentley added that it was already common for academics to outsource transcribing and proofreading tasks to freelancers, but that the projects available on Upwork suggested that institutions were seeking freelancers for higher-skill research tasks.

There are also questions over whether freelancers will be attributed as authors for research work.

Dr Bentley said universities needed to decide whether to encourage or discourage the emerging freelance market.

“If [it’s seen as] positive, universities should be informing their researchers that there are possibilities to outsource research tasks…rather than hiring a research assistant. If it’s considered a threat for researcher development, they need to set clear rules on how research grants can be used,” he said.


Print headline: Global freelance market ‘could stifle researcher development’, study says

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