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Over the summer I visited a research station at a different university to collect data for my PhD work. I received an invoice (nearly two months after the fact) for bench fees related to my stay in the amount of $100/day. I used a few square feet of floor space in one of the labs and some outdoor space as well, but brought all my own equipment and materials.

This is my first time visiting a different university, so this is new to me. The communication from the research station before my visit was exceptionally poor, not a single one of my emails (over the span of months) was replied to when I tried to communicate with my sponsor, but since they accepted my payment for lodging I showed up. I guess I should have assumed there would be fees on top of what I already paid associated with my stay, but as I mentioned I am new to this, and working in an interdisciplinary field so my advisor is not familiar with the customs of this other field.

My specific questions are:

1) What is a typical day rate for bench fees, considering the visiting student has provided all their own equipment and materials? (is there a typical rate?)

2) Is it normal to have no communication of any fees beforehand (or during the stay) only to be sent an invoice after the fact? Perhaps I am being unreasonable to expect that this be communicated up front.

My qualm is not with paying the fees, I understand that it costs money to run a research station, but since none of this was communicated ahead of time I did not budget it into my grant for this fieldwork. Also, $100/day seems excessive for floor space, but perhaps that is the going rate.

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    Not communicating that there is a cost beforehand certainly seems like bad form to me. Unless it's disclosed prominently on their website or something you probably have grounds for negotiating it down. Then again, if you plan on going back there it might be worth eating the cost. – Anyon Oct 9 '18 at 1:11
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    "not a single one of my emails (over the span of months) was replied to when I tried to communicate with my sponsor, but since they accepted my payment for lodging I showed up." In hindsight that probably wasn't a good idea. I'd think it would be imperative to get positive confirmation from someone; if they don't answer emails then use phone or snail mail, or contact someone else in the office. – Nate Eldredge Oct 9 '18 at 1:13
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    Could you perhaps add a note of some general field, or perhaps country? I'm just a bit shocked at the idea of there being a fee for a visiting scholar who is given a place to sit, as opposed to software licenses or use of a computing cluster - first I've ever heard of such a practice, and it just seems very odd and surprising to me in fields I'm familiar with in the US. – BrianH Oct 9 '18 at 2:30
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    This is the first time that I hear of a university charging a visiting scholar for a bench! I'd stay away from such a university! – Massimo Ortolano Oct 9 '18 at 2:45
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    It is never reasonable to charge fees without notification and agreement in advance. – David Richerby Oct 9 '18 at 7:30
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I'm not in this field, so I can't comment on whether the amount is reasonable. But at something like a marine biology research station, where the site itself is uniquely suited for researchers coming to do their own work there, it doesn't seem surprising that some sort of charge would be imposed. In response to other posters, it doesn't seem analogous to when you go to another university to collaborate and are given a desk. It seems to me more like renting time on a telescope: it's a specialized facility which the university will allow visitors to use, if they pay.

If this is standard in the field, it might suggest that you ought to have suspected that there would be a fee, and you could have asked specifically how much it would cost. But they really should have proactively disclosed it.

Anyhow, I would offer the following general advice:

  • Since you say you're a PhD student, get your advisor involved. A professor will be more likely to be taken seriously in trying to negotiate the fee.

  • I would suggest that you (or your advisor) should play up the argument "since we didn't know about the fee, we couldn't include it in our grant funding request". The research station will be used to people paying the bench fees from grant funds. If you don't have grant funds available to pay the fee, and the reason you don't have any funds is because of their poor communication, then this is more likely to encourage them to give you a reduction or waiver.

  • Don't agree to pay the fee out of your own pocket, except as a very last resort. It's a research expense, and one way or another, your university and/or funding agency ought to pay. Talk to your advisor about possible ways to get it paid.

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If somebody is going to charge me money for a service when I'm visiting an off-campus site (or even something on-campus), I want to know about it in advance. The first thing they should have mentioned in any sort of response—or post on a website—is that it's not a free service. Without such information, people can't make an informed decision whether or not the service is worth the cost.

So I would certainly question this invoice and its fairness. (As for the cost, that also seems a bit high, but I can't really comment on a "going rate" for such a service.)

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    "I can't really comment on a "going rate" for such a service": I'd comment that since the OP brought their own equipment, with $100/day they could have given the OP a new bench everyday ;-) – Massimo Ortolano Oct 9 '18 at 4:31
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    @MassimoOrtolano Or I'll bring my own bench with me so they have no excuse to charge me bench fee. – scaaahu Oct 9 '18 at 7:43
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    Guess what -- a bench fee isn't literally for the cost of having a bench... – David Richerby Oct 9 '18 at 18:58
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I completely agree with other replies here saying that such charges have to be discussed before the actual visit. I also agree that $100 per day seems quite excessive.

However, it should be noted, that Universities do successfully charge such fees for the privilege of using the space on a regular basis. At least in the UK, every grant application has to budget for direct costs (such as researchers' salary and consumables) and indirect costs, included so-called overheads charged by the University. Overheads are the payments covering the costs incurred by the University for maintaining it's operation (such as cleaning, heating, etc). It may or may not include the use of special equipment — the access to the lab is sometimes charged on top of other overheads. In the UK a typical overhead fee is ~100-110% of the gross salary, amounting to ~£50000 p.a. or ~£140 per day. I have not seen any justification/break-down of the overheads fees in the public domain. Afaik, most researchers working at the UK have to simply agree with such payment and include it in the grant budget.

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aeismail already comments on the ludicracy and I agree with those words, so I'll comment on the $100/day ~ $3000/month ~ $15000/team (of five)/month, which seems rather a lot when compared to typical city rents (to accommodate five people). Now, that's an incredibly crude way to estimate (especially as I've ignored the lab aspect), but costs vary considerably between cities, so it's difficult to get a better figure without more details (and factoring lab overheads is more work).

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    Your answer seems not to be based on any actual knowledge of the situation: you're just expressing your opinion, and that's not what Stack Exchange is about. I have no knowledge of what lab space should cost or typically costs, so I'm not going to give an opinion on that. – David Richerby Oct 9 '18 at 9:08
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    What fact? The asker isn't trying to rent an apartment. They're "renting" lab space, which is obviously going to be more expensive than an apartment, since labs have staffing costs, safety equipment, etc. – David Richerby Oct 9 '18 at 10:30
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    What makes you think this is in a city? – Azor Ahai Oct 9 '18 at 20:16
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    @user2768 Real estate prices establish a lower bound, obviously. But the question asks for an upper bound, so a lower bound is useless. I’m not claiming that anything is complicated, just that this answer doesn’t actually contribute anything. If it attempted to factor in actual lab costs, it would be fine. But it doesn’t. At all. – David Richerby Oct 10 '18 at 8:45
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    OK, my mind is blown. You're claiming that actual rates for bench fees are meaningless and real estate rates are relevant, to a question about bench fees. *boggle* – David Richerby Oct 10 '18 at 9:13

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