Science and Technology Advice is Not Free

Ever since I setup a web page, even before I even knew what a blog was, I have had the following odd experiences. People get in touch with me, in some way, typically by email (but not always), because they do not know how to do something and want me to help them. I am not talking about a business seeking my help, but rather just a random individual, sometimes a software developer, sometimes an engineer, sometimes a student… seeking free help. Students are especially likely to seek free help.

When it concerns my published research, this is usually very pleasing to me: I love to answer questions about my research.

However, quite often, the questions are just “work”. By that I mean that they are exactly the type of questions that you pay a consultant to answer. Being a pseudo-polite person, I most often answer the question quickly, sometimes giving a pointer, most often just saying I cannot help.

At some point in time, when I was very active as a consultant, prior to rejoining the research world, I would sometimes agree to answer, for a fee. Only once did such an individual agree to pay: I then produced a sample Java code… it took me about an hour to test, document, and ship the result. The fellow wanted to compress some images in a certain way. I charged him US$150. He complained that I charged too much and never paid.

I am aware that doctors, lawyers and accountants sometimes answer questions without charging people. But the type of questions I get often require 15 minutes or more of work. My expertise has been acquired over the years through hard work. In fact, I estimate that I have invested far more in growing my expertise than most doctors, lawyers and accountants.

Today, I got two questions in my inbox. One of them was “I downloaded this script from your web site, and it does not work for me, can you tell me why.” This fellow expects me to invest 15 minutes, 30 minutes or more. Meanwhile, he will attempt to turn around and charge other folks for the result, either because he is an employee or a consultant himself. Do you think he will be willing to pay my fee? Then, a graduate student from emailed me a question about some algorithm I once used in a paper. This algorithm is generic. Explaining the algorithm to the fellow in question would require about half and hour. Do you think he is willing to pay my fee?

This annoys me profoundly because it suggests that in some people’s mind, science and technology skills are not valuable. Somehow, my time is less valuable than an accountant’s time. I am annoyed that people consider medical, legal, or accounting advice to be worth paying for, but science and technology advice should be free.

I am not saying serious businesses hold this view. But the public does.

(Of course, several businesses do seek free services. Anyone who has been a consultant knows this. There is a category of clients you always get: they want stuff for free on the implicit promise that they will make it up to you later.)

To be fair, the public also does not feel like paying for financial advice: if you call up a financial expert, he will probably charge you nothing, but get a commission on whatever he can sell to you.

I do not know where this whole advice-should-be-free attitude comes from. I much prefer paying for advice. I want my financial advisor to get paid by me, not by the fund managers.

An even deeper issue is that when the public consider that science and technology skills are free, I think you eventually end up with very good doctors, lawyers, and accountants, but you outsource engineering and science to other countries. You also end up getting poor advice about where to invest your money because you are not willing to pay (directly) your financial advisor.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

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