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I live in the developing world where most of the population cannot afford to go to university. Unable to pay tuition, I relied on online material to study. However now even that is difficult because a lot of high level resources are paywalled.

Recently I wrote an article in my field of interest and it was selected in a contest, which I am very proud about. If I am able to consistently write such expositions, will I be able to make a stable income? I have zero idea how much professors, researchers and others get paid for each article they publish on prestigious journals. If $ per page or article is high enough I may finally have a chance at making enough money to pursue higher education.

On the other hand I am worried that judges might not take my work seriously given that I am not in university and am a random person from the global south. Do I need to be in college for my papers to be considered in the first place?

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    "However now even that is difficult because a lot of high level resources are paywalled." LibGen and SciHub can get you quite far. I would go so far as to say that the resources you can find there are very much sufficient at your level. (Yes, these websites presumably violate copyright law, but one can very much question whether a person in the global south who cannot afford to go to university needs to take copyright law all that seriously.) Mar 24 at 12:59
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    While not answering your original question, you should know that many authors will be happy to give a free copy of a paper to a student or serious researcher who is financially constrained.
    – arp
    Mar 24 at 16:56
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    In some fields, such as mathematics, nowadays most essential stuff is not behind paywalls, but is either on peoples' homepages, or on arXiv. The stuff behind paywalls is ... by this year ... primarily there as status-enhancing, etc. Although having other serious people check one's work is good, that's no longer what "peer review" really is... Mar 24 at 19:14
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    Generally - no they can't.
    – einpoklum
    Mar 25 at 8:49
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10 Answers 10

91

I'm afraid, I have bad news for you.

First of all, you can publish without an affiliation. I did publish my first two papers without belonging to any university at all.

However, you are not going to get paid. I never met anyone in academia, who got paid for their paper at all (maybe there are exceptions, but if there are, they are rare). Instead, researchers are paid by their universities or from scientific grants they won. Having papers published will eventually help you, when applying for paid positions and grants, but they won't win you any money in the short run. I wish I had better news for you.

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    Outside of the Western world, many countries pay researchers a bonus for publishing papers - enough that it's a substantial source of income for some. Mar 24 at 14:12
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    Not only will the venue not pay you if they want to publish your work, in many cases they actually charge you a substantial fee to publish your paper with them. Mar 24 at 16:07
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    Nice answer. I suppose, the only ones economically benefiting from academic work are the commercial publishers. Generally, I'd say, academia is a low to moderately paid profession, unsurprisingly, as its productivity is not as determined as it is usual for industry. Often, you are in charge of applying for conference and publishing fees to be funded. Living from just writing academic books is also not the most viable strategy.
    – mfg
    Mar 24 at 18:47
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    @JackAidley yeah and there are stories and stories about how this obviously incentivises bad papers
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 25 at 12:41
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As other answers have pointed out, publishing itself doesn't usually pay (and sometimes it costs you). However, it is possible to become an independent or freelance researcher.

Here is an article in Nature discussing the phenomenon.

The difference to what you sketch is that you're not being paid so much for the article, as for the research that the article reports on. In short, if somebody needs something figured out, and they are willing to pay for it, they can pay you to find out.

This seems to be a pretty challenging career track, and it has the common downsides of being a freelancer: you need to find a steady stream of clients, and a lot of it depends on your network and your reputation. You also have a lot less freedom to pick abstract or theoretical topics. On the other hand, if it works out, it comes with a lot of freedom, and it may be a way to be a scientist without the formal credentials that university jobs require.

A lot of freelancers (like artists) divide their time between paid work and personal work. The former pays the bills, and the latter helps you build a reputation, and satisfies your need to do more fundamental and meaningful work.

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    Sometimes it costs you? When does it not? Are there fields where reputable journals publish without charging the author? What fields are those?
    – terdon
    Mar 25 at 14:25
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    @terdon, in theoretical physics some of the most reputable journals don't (e.g. SciPost, which I would recommend for their great philosophy and open-access publishing in general!)
    – Kvothe
    Mar 25 at 15:34
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    @terdon It's the same In Astronomy. Some journals are financially supported on the country-level and researchers from those countries can publish for free. Mar 25 at 15:59
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    @terdon Pretty much any traditional (non-open-access) journal in the fields I know (mix of chemistry and physics) fits that description. Article processing charges are mostly a thing for open-access (by necessity) or predatory journals (because they can, I guess?).
    – TooTea
    Mar 26 at 10:12
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    Yeah, I'll add that I've never heard of CS conferences or CS journals charging for publication, though the conferences of course have a registration fee if you want to actually present the paper.
    – MegaZeroX
    Mar 26 at 16:30
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It's possible to make money from submitting papers, but if you're at the point where you are paid to submit, you're also likely past the point where money matters to you, because you'd have to win a Nobel prize first.

More realistically, if you write lots of good papers, you can get a full-time position at a university and get paid to write those papers. (Or get a PhD studentship and get paid to pursue higher education.)

Finally, it's possible to make money from writing for science communication / science journalism outlets.

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In your question you talk of publishing by "academics", and it seems at first that you are asking about people employed at academic institutions. However, the main part of your question appears to relate to the related issue of whether it is possible for someone (not necessarily at an institution) to make a living by writing about so-called "academic" matters ... perhaps science, humanities, economics, political science, etc.

If you mean the latter, the answer is definitely yes although you won't get paid by peer-reviewed journals. However, there are many financially successful authors of expositions of academic topics for lay-people, some notable examples being Philip Ball, Giulia Enders, Michael Mosley, and Donald Matthews ... along with many others. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, there is no published data about just how many unsuccessful would-be authors there are with the same kind of aspirations as the successful authors that I have listed.

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Since you ask mostly about papers, the answer is no, as others have stated. However, in rare (very rare) cases an academic can get quite rich from publishing textbooks; especially university texts for elementary courses. The first course in Economics or in Calculus can be worth a lot of money, but for every hundred or so attempts, one might (might) be successful at that level.

But it certainly isn't something you can build a career around. You normally build the career first and then get lucky (very lucky) when you exposition is widely adopted. But at five or so US dollars per volume sold, it takes a lot of sales to make you wealthy. And a given "edition" of a popular book has a very limited lifetime and requires continual updates.


Some secondary school texts are also lucrative. Texas, for example, has a statewide process for selecting books to be used in schools. Getting a book approved by them assures a lot of sales, and not only in Texas. But still rare, with lots of luck involved. Many attempts, few successes.

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  • I buy a textbook for $150, and only $5 goes to the author? That's only marginally better than the reward for writing papers (zero).
    – gerrit
    Mar 25 at 9:07
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    If you can convince the publisher that the book is going to be a success then you might get 10%. The problem with the business model is that most books are commercial failures and the revenues from the few successes go to subsidising the failures. Mar 25 at 10:57
  • @MichaelKay, true. Also it is a fact that for most textbooks the actual market is small relative to the production cost. Unlike, say, novels by semi-famous authors.
    – Buffy
    Mar 25 at 11:11
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    Not that different from my experience except that (a) I wrote my XSLT book in 2000 when computer book sales were much higher, and (b) I worked on it much more intensively for a much shorter time, about 4 months. The royalties were useful (it's still selling today after 4 editions) but the main financial benefit was to establish name recognition from which I set up first a consultancy and then a software business. Big caveat though - there is nothing academic about any of this. Mar 25 at 23:14
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Yes, academics can make a living solely out of publishing. But not academic publishing. If you're a historian, for example, you can't make any money writing academic history papers, but if you're good at writing, and lucky, and choose your subject wisely, then you can do very nicely writing popular books for a general audience. Having said that, for every author who succeeds at this there will be another 99 who fail.

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The other answers are correct that very few, if any, people get paid to publish in academic journals. In fact, some journals charge authors money. The people who do get paid are the best known scholars in a given field. For instance, people may be invited to write hundred page review articles of a given field and may be given a fee.

There are, however, some other possibilities. There are online writing sites where you can make money. Two that I know of are Medium and Substack. Each has its quirks and possibilities. Whether you can make a living at either depends on how much money you need to live. Cost of living varies a lot. I do know one guy who writes a lot on Medium and manages to have a nice supplement to his Social Security payments. But he spends 30 or more hours a week on the site. Some people make a lot on Substack, but I think most of them were already well-known before starting that.

In general, cost of living is lower in the developing world (although there is a lot of variation, even within that world). And, of course, there's also variation in what any individual considers enough money.

The academics who make a lot by writing (and there aren't many) are the people who write textbooks that become very widely used. Paul Samuelson wrote Economics which has been through 18 editions, and sold over 4 million copies. But writing a textbook is a ton of work and getting one published if you don't have a PhD is hard (although you could self-publish).

You could, however, self-publish a smaller book (or books) and try to make money that way. It's not easy and there are quite a few upfront costs, which might be prohibitive for you.

Sorry.

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    I don't remember fees for any of the articles I submitted as a solo author. I don't know the situation for those I submitted as part of a team. But the idea that journals might pay the authors is still not realistic. And I know some journals waive the fees for authors from developing countries.
    – Peter Flom
    Mar 25 at 14:52
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    I did work in psychology, education, social work, HIV, and other things. (I was a statistician for a research company, then for a hospital, then for researchers). But, again, only a few of them were where I was sole author.
    – Peter Flom
    Mar 25 at 15:16
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    @terdon No, that's not correct at all. While routine article publication charges are the norm if you opt for open access, APC is rare if you do not select OA. Neither Cell nor Nature have any fees if you do not opt for OA. Science has no OA and never charges. Journals may have color figure fees, voluntary page fees, and overlength fees, but that's different.
    – user71659
    Mar 25 at 21:11
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    @terdon if a maths journal asks people to pay a fee for publishing, it's more often than not a scam. There are a very very small number of OA journals that survive off authors paying a fee. And in fact I can only think of less than 5. The most prestigious journals in maths publish papers that are scores of pages long, even more than 100 pages, and certainly do not charge fees. And most OA journals I know of in maths do not charge fees either, and they are definitely reputable. Here's an article, 140 pages doi.org/10.4310/ACTA.2023.v231.n2.a1 in a top-3 journal, & also OA with no fee. Mar 26 at 0:16
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    @terdon "By special arrangement with the Institut Mittag-Leffler, International Press provides fully open online access to the entire content of Acta Mathematica — from its first issue of 1882 to the most recent. Acta Mathematica was founded by Gösta Mittag-Leffler in 1882. It is owned and published by the Institut Mittag-Leffler, an international research institute for mathematics under the auspices of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Acta Mathematica is one of the most prestigious mathematics research journals in the world,... Mar 26 at 0:21
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Here's an idea. Many years ago my mother and another woman, her friend, were in the same situation, with little prospects for going to university. Living in a Central American country their opportunities were quite limited. But they came up with the idea of approaching the President of their country with the aim of somehow securing a scholarship. After presenting their case, the President was most impressed with their dignified desire for an education, and in short order had secured from the Senate not only a grant for both of them but also at a prestigious American university in Florida, which at the time was quite generous in accepting them. Had they not taken the bold step to appear in front of the country's President, they probably would not have achieved their degrees. Luck favors the Bold, my good man or woman. Carpe diem!

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Another direction for you could be contacting actual professors from another country.

Finding good and motivated students for doing research is often hard for the new proffesors, so they might be willing to spend time sharing materials and teaching you. Established professor will not want to spend his time on you, but new professor just might.

A simple way to identify a new professor is looking for someone with many papers as first author and only few where his name is last. Or just reading his biography.

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If you publish enough, you may be able to gain employment as an journal editor in your field.

Here's the idea:

  1. Publish enough to establish yourself in the field.
  2. Review papers for journals in your field
  3. Develop relationships with editors
  4. Get the job

It might be hard to go from step 1 to step 2 without an affiliation. To overcome this, many institutions can give you a title, like "research adjunct professor", without pay. Just need to develop a relationship with a collaborator.

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