Farewell and Thanks for Reading

This will be my final post here at PLOS Blogs. It’s been a great couple of years, but sadly PLOS has decided to change the licensing rules that govern its blogs, and the new arrangement just doesn’t work for me as a freelance journalist.

When I was first invited to blog at PLOS, I had mixed feelings. I was honored to join such an illustrious gaggle of journalists and bloggers, among them Seth Mnookin, Steve Silberman, John Rennie, Emily Anthes, Deb Blum, Misha Angrist, and David Kroll. But I was conflicted about writing for free on a site that turns a profit for someone else.

I rationalized it like this: I was already blogging for free, at a WordPress site I’d just launched. Here was a chance to do the same thing, but with built-in traffic, a great group of colleagues, and free tech support. I climbed on board, and I’m grateful for the support, platform, and readership.

Since then, though, I’ve become even more uncomfortable with this whole economy of undervaluing content. In addition to everything else egregious about the widespread practice of offering writers no compensation but “exposure,” I’m now convinced it creates an overall atmosphere of unprofessionalism–which in turn can blur lines, leading all parties to feel a little clueless about the nature of the relationship. I may be alone here, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this climate contributed to recent episodes of bad behavior. I’m certainly not excusing anyone: “Don’t be a creep,” as Laura Helmuth so eloquently put it, is still a basic and irrevocable rule of behavior. But, I mean, really: How can anyone feel good about themselves, or take themselves seriously as a professional, when they’re being told their work is effectively worth nothing?

All of this has been weighing on me. And then PLOS decided to change its licensing rules. Until now, this blog has operated under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC license.

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

But as of tomorrow, the blogs will operate under the same license as the rest of PLOS, CC BY. Under these terms, someone could take my words, which no one paid me to write, and use them to make money themselves. I understand PLOS’s desire to streamline its licensing, and I see why this makes sense in the context of the open access mission. If I were an academic, I’d probably be fine with it.

As someone who earns a living solely as a freelance writer, though, I just can’t do it. Even if it’s only a theoretical objection (I mean, really, who’s going to make money off my blog posts?), it’s still a valid one: I’d be saying it’s okay to give away my work for free so someone else can profit from it. Logically, it doesn’t make sense.

I’ll be relaunching Tooth & Claw elsewhere eventually–though for now I’m a little overcommitted, between writing feature stories and taking care of my son, who was born in August. For now, thanks for reading.

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4 Responses to Farewell and Thanks for Reading

  1. David Kroll says:

    Hillary, thank you so much for mentioning me in your thoughtful departure from PLOS Blogs. As an academic myself, I think there’s an underappreciation for the sacrifice you freelancers put into serving readers with top-notch investigative science journalism. Your awards this year alone speak to your stature in the community and high regard with which you’re held.

    I applaud you for the decision to leave a non-paying situation, particularly with the licensing change. You certainly can’t feed your newborn son with “exposure.” Much love to you and your family and admiration for your writing skills.

  2. Victoria Costello says:

    While I’m sad to see Hillary Rosner cease blogging on PLOS BLOGS Network, as the Blog Community Manager and a former freelance science writer myself, I fully understand and sympathize with her reasons for doing so. I’m also cognizant of the current and necessary debate about web publishers “under-valuing of content” and for these reasons, I want to bring at least some degree of transparency to the reasons for recent changes to PLOS Blogs.

    As Hillary indicated, one month ago PLOS announced a change in licensing policy that all blog posts hosted on our network must be licensed CC-BY. This decision was made to bring consistency with the rest of PLOS content and allow users to reuse journal articles and blog posts in the same way.

    To respond to some of the particulars in Hillary’s post, it deserves to be said that the types of reuse that PLOS and other Open Access publishers are most concerned with supporting through CC BY are educational, nonprofit and/or research related. It’s also true that most innovation comes about through the re-use of previously published Open Access content. It also turns out that the CCBYNC license has some limitations that have persuaded PLOS to stop using it on the blog network it hosts. This includes, in some interpretations, prohibitions of reuse of an article when any advertising is on a site, or donations are solicited. However, as Hillary has stated, the CCBY license does not preclude someone from packaging CC BY material for profit-making purposes.

    Although PLOS understands that freelance science writers are often not in the same position as researcher-authors or others with paid “day jobs” whether academic or otherwise, for the sake of consistency and PLOS user simplicity, PLOS has made the decision to only use the CC BY license.

    For what it’s worth, I simply want to say that I take all of Hillary’s post to heart, and I know that PLOS’s readers will miss her great explanatory science writing.

    –Victoria Costello PLOS BLOGS Community Manager

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  4. Robert L Bell says:

    Pay the damn writers!

    While writers as a group are noble and self-sacrificing, and we like to think that our work is of benefit to society, at the end of the day if we can’t make a living we can’t continue working.

    Simple as that.