Science writing I’d pay to read

Not Exactly Rocket ScienceBy Ed YongMar 4, 2011 8:23 PM


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“That’s brilliant. I’d pay good money for that.” I’ve been saying this a lot recently. My RSS reader, Twitter stream and other sources of incoming goodies have been chock-full of stand-out pieces – posts that are long, thorough, beautifully written, and most of all, unpaid. Have a look at Greg Downey’s opus on the biology of holding your breath, or Delene Beeland’s piece on Ethiopia’s church forests, or Brian Switek’s post on human origins, or Bora Zivkovic’s tour de force on clock genes, or Steve Silberman’s... well pretty much everything by Steve Silberman. I read these pieces in amazement that their writers should stick them up for free, when so many others pen far lesser works for a salary. Clearly, the writers are happy to provide free content and they get various advantages out of it. But I absolutely believe that good writers should be paid for good work. I read these pieces and think, “That took a lot of effort. It’s a shame they didn’t get paid for that. I’d pay good money for that.” And then, last week, I thought, “Hey, why don’t I pay good money for that?” So I’m going to. As of this month, I am putting my money where my mouth is and trying to set an example. The basic idea: every month, I’m going to choose ten pieces that I really enjoyed and donate £3 to the author as a token of my appreciation. To clarify the rules further:

  • This excludes pieces written for paying mainstream institutions. This is for rewarding people who give content freely. I include bloggers who belong to paying networks like Discover, Scienceblogs and Wired, on the grounds that their rewards are fairly small and are typically based on traffic not, say, word count. So a great, long post may get no views (and earn no money) because it doesn’t have Lady Gaga in the URL.

  • There are no formal criteria about things like topic, length, style and so on. I naturally gravitate towards long-form journalistic pieces aimed at general audiences, but posts can make the list for all sorts of reasons not limited to making an important point, making me laugh, or being beautiful. Basically, whatever I enjoy with all the subjectivity that involves.

  • The number of pieces and the donation per piece may change as we go along – maybe more pieces, and less money for each – but they seem like reasonable figures for now and not vastly different from what, say, the Times charges for its paywall.

Of course, at £3, the reward to the author is pretty trivial but this is more of an acknowledgement that I as a reader enjoyedthe work and felt it was worth my money. People might not want it or feel weird about it. That’s fine and probably expected, (although I would hope that no one would actually take offence at the idea) and I’ll just redistribute among the other candidates. But I do feel that these personalised micropayments are a bit unexplored and I want to explore them. Then, there are the not inconsiderable logistical problems. How do I actually get the money to people? For the moment, I’m going to do it primitively-as-you-like. I will contact people on the list myself about their Paypal accounts, if they have them. Londoners can claim a pint off me, if they prefer (yes, that’s what booze costs in London). Ultimately, I’d love to have some way for readers to make similar donations if they so chose to – otherwise, this might just turn into a small group of people swapping money. Maybe a Paypal button on the side, where all the proceeds in a given month are split between the chosen writers for that month? Or a button for each writer? Or maybe one where donations are split between me and the others? I’m open to suggestions about how this could work and whether readers would be happy to contribute. In an ideal world, every blogger would have a Paypal button or similar on their site that I could click on. Some people find that uncomfortable; some networked bloggers can’t actually install one (for technical or policy reasons). Alternatively, everyone could use something like Flattr – it’s a great model, but it runs into the same problems. There could be a third-party site where people could register their Paypal accounts? Again, I’m keen to hear any suggestions. I know this might all sound a bit strange to a lot of people and I cannot stress enough that this is a giving initiative, not a collecting one. I’m not asking everyone to start demanding money for their work. I’m saying that good writers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living because companies are increasingly unwilling to pay good money for good writing. And that would be to everyone’s detriment. To an extent, I think it falls to the consumer to support good writing financially and, as a consumer, I am willing to do my part. And without further ado, my picks for February. I will be in touch with these fine people soon:

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