Unpaid Work in Academia.
I currently have two interns. They’re undergraduates, and they’re getting ready to move on. I only have money to pay them through April. They knew that going in. Actually, going in, they thought it was only until last December, but I scrounged up a little extra dough. Right now we have a draft of the manuscript. I’m intending on submitting it as soon as we can, with them as co-first authors (a conversation for another day!). Will it be done by the end of April? I don’t know. Probably not. We need to really tighten it up a great deal, and then get edits from collaborators, and then send it off to this enormously famous dude whose clinic we modeled for his comments. That’s a courtesy, but it could have big dividends.
If we can’t submit it by the end of April, what expectations am I, as a PI, allowed to have from these interns? They did a lot of the work. The data collection. The simulation code. The data interpretation. I will certainly need to understand and examine these things to respond to review. Am I entitled to their labor in responding to review, or conducting new experiments, or revising the manuscript after they’ve moved on and I can no longer pay them?
Absolutely not. I have no right to expect them to work for free. Trainees in academia often continue to work long hours for former PIs to get out old papers. And if both parties treat that collegially and believe they have benefits to gain, then that’s wonderful. One of my interns has said she wants to continue the work if she can. One is going off to medical school. I’ll never hear from her again. And that’s fine. I am not entitled to her labor.
That’s the risk a PI takes when they bring on trainees: that they will move on with unfinished work. They have that right. And holding a recommendation hostage, or demanding they produce for free after everyone has agreed they’ve graduated, or after they’ve taken another position is exploitative. And this bizarre arrangement exists only in academia. In any other industry, whenever a person leaves a post, they leave unfinished work, and the people who remain suck it up and move on with their lives and jobs.
“But!”, academics argue, “This work is so important, and we invest so much! It must be completed and published! For the PI, and for the world!” Then pay for it. If you need additional work from a trainee after they leave, set aside some of your budget and pay them hourly as a contractor. I might be able to arrange for my undergraduate to receive credit towards her degree for continuing to work on this manuscript. But there needs to be a tangible, measurable benefit. The unquantifiable “value” of being an author on a paper isn’t enough.
Academia is an exploitation machine. Grad students, postdocs, undergrads, adjunct professors. All are asked to work for far too little, or for nothing, or for nebulous, vague rewards. And PIs who pressure ex-trainees to continue working, without pay, on projects after they’ve left are participating in the exploitation engine. The risk of taking on temporary workers and trainees is that they don’t finish. That’s the PI’s risk, from the outset. Own it. We can’t demand free labor.