How do you put a price on scientific research?

Because of the popularity of OncoLnc I get a lot of emails asking for advice or help on TCGA analyses. And I’m happy to respond to them and even send snippets of code if necessary. But to deal with more involved analyses I set up an account on Science Exchange. The idea of providing a service such as coding or creating a figure feels natural to me. While in academia I would make figures for people, write code for them, or consult on their projects without any expectation for authorship on their papers. So the idea of performing a fairly simple task for a small fee without expectation of authorship makes a lot of sense. What I didn’t expect is that I would get a lot of requests to complete entire projects.

In academia it is very clear what happens when you are tasked a project. Upon completion you will be first author on the paper, and while working on the project your salary is either supported by a grant or by the lab. So when someone comes to me asking for my help on Project X what should they be prepared to offer? If I complete a project I would expect credit for my work, and I left academia so that I could work on what I want, so if these projects affect my work I would expect to be financially compensated. But I can’t imagine the people who come to me want me to be first author on their paper. I imagine they are looking to pay me some small fee to do all of their work for them and then take credit for it, but I’m not positive since I always turn these types of requests down without asking about specifics.

But it did get me thinking. If I were to accept a request to do someone’s research for them what should I charge? It’s a difficult question to answer because research projects don’t have clear end goals. What if I look into Project X and don’t find anything interesting enough to publish? Do I have to keep looking until there’s something to build a paper around? And what if I find something really interesting? Is that worth extra? Do I just charge by the hour like lawyers?

I tried to think about analogies with other professions and one that came to mind is art. You can make a direct analogy between artists and researchers. Artists have their works shown in an art gallery and if an interested party likes the work they can buy it. Similarly, researchers have their work displayed in journals, and if someone wants to read it they can buy the article or pay a subscription fee (psst, just use Sci-Hub). The difference is that while the artist gets a cut of the sale the researcher does not get a portion of the journal’s sales, and in fact the researcher has to pay the journal to publish the work!

It is interesting to continue with the art analogy. I assume an art connoisseur can estimate the “worth” of a work without knowing whose work it is, but I would not be able to. Similarly, researchers familiar with a field *should* be able to determine the importance of a paper without knowing what journal it was published in or what lab it was from, but less experienced researchers will have to rely on name recognition.

Although this analogy doesn’t quite work it does provide a paradigm for how someone might sell their research. Instead of accepting an offer to do someone’s research I could sell research that I’ve already done but haven’t published. This actually kind of already happens at preprint servers. Journals scour preprint servers for interesting articles and send authors invitations to submit their paper. In fact I’ve had this happen with my preprints. So what if I flipped the publishing system on its head and offered to submit my preprints to the journal that offers the most money? Even crazier, what if I offered to sale a preprint to a researcher? I don’t plan on submitting my preprints to journals so why not go ahead and transfer my copyright for my preprints to researchers? Given COPE’s very lenient stance on plagiarism it’s got to be ethical. And besides, how is it any different from handing over your copyright to journals?

And what would a researcher pay for a preprint? Just like art I guess the worth is determined by the buyer. If someone desperately needs a publication and has the financial resources I suppose they might pay quite a bit for a preprint. I mean all they have to do is slap their name on the paper and submit it to the journal of their choice. That’s at least several months of work for most labs, so the preprint should be worth at least that much in researchers’ salary.

As fun as this was to think about it still doesn’t get to the question of what I should charge when researchers ask me to complete their PhD/postdoc work for them. Instead of being similar to an art gallery this seems to line up pretty well with the practice of paying someone to write college essays. I’m not too familiar with that market, but I think writers charge a flat fee per essay, or maybe they charge per page. I guess I could charge per page of manuscript, I’m not sure; I’ve never been too fond of going out of my way to help people cut corners.