When science writers are done wrong by a publisher, where do they turn?

Tips for Aggrieved Science Writers

When Undark learned a few months ago that Nautilus magazine had stopped paying many of its writers, a source suggested that the official grievance committee of the National Association of Science Writers might already be looking into the matter. The committee had formed in 2005 to advocate for members of the country’s largest science writing organization — including a fast-growing number of freelancers — who were having issues with slow or missing payments, and other breaches of contract.

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When reached by email, however, one of the committee members listed on the NASW website explained that not only was the grievance committee not looking into the Nautilus case, the committee didn’t even exist. While it may come as a surprise to many of NASW’s more than 2,000 dues-paying members, the grievance committee had quietly folded in 2010.

As late as 2013, reports were circulating that the committee was merely on hiatus, but its reactivation never came to pass, and the Nautilus incident — in which perhaps dozens of freelancers have gone unpaid for months — simply highlighted a larger gap in protections for many science writers.

While it existed, the NASW grievance committee would intervene directly on behalf of beleaguered writers, and by 2009, it was reporting numerous cases in which its nudging with editors and publishers had paid off. In some cases, a message delivered in NASW’s name was sufficient to get a publisher to yield on late payments or what were considered to be unfair kill fees.

In other cases, explained Robin Marantz Henig, a former member of the committee and a past president of NASW, “we would send letters that reminded them that we were an organization of 2,500 science writers, and that the publication’s reputation was important.”

The suggestion there — that if the publication didn’t make it right, the committee would notify the full NASW membership — was extra leverage, and often effective. “That was all we had, which is why it always kind of amazed me that it actually worked,” says Dan Ferber, the committee’s former chair.

But after what Henig describes as “some saber rattling” from at least one publication, the committee got nervous — and so did NASW.

“While investigating how to best respond to some grievance correspondence, issues came to the fore that necessitated a significant reframing of the committee’s operations,” explained Tinsley Davis, who currently serves as executive director of NASW, in an email message. Among the most salient issues: a tax code regulation stipulating that organizations like NASW exist to serve common interests, not offer custom services to individual members.

Since then, NASW has debuted resources to help members avoid problems, including a contracts database (members only), and a forum to share information about clients.

There are other options outside the science journalism world. The Freelancers Union and the American Society of Journalists and Authors both have grievance resource centers. (ASJA representatives can offer advice to individual members, but the organization — also citing legal concerns — does not advocate for them with publishers.) The National Writers Union, which is currently preparing legal action against Ebony Media on behalf of more than two dozen unpaid writers, will provide legal representation for its members in court.

And freelance contracts are more enforceable than they seem, says Vinay Jain, a lawyer and entrepreneur who has written about freelance contract issues. “It’s actually quite easy for a non-lawyer, a layperson, to file a claim in small-claims court,” he said.

As for NASW, Davis said that they are exploring new options, although she said specific details were still being explored.

“In light of recent events,” she wrote, “the freelance committee has renewed the passion for figuring out what process will work for members and keep us on the good side of the IRS and other agencies.”

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.