Capitalism ruins science

One of the most persistent and annoying claims of those who support capitalism, is that without a profit motive, we’d see no innovation or advancement. This is false. The incentives of capitalism do drive some innovation, but only where one can expect profits in the short term. Often, this means companies finding ways to make changes to existing products or technologies that are big enough to count as a “new product”, while still being almost entirely superficial. Another big area of capitalist innovation is finding ways to force people to pay for something they used to get for free. The “innovation” that made Bill Gates so rich was primarily about figuring out how to force people to pay for software – something that had been in many ways an open-source commons. Information technology in general has been subjected to a series of enclosures to increase profits by forcing people to pay for things that they could be getting for free, or for much more reasonable prices.

Science is a collective endeavor, and always have been. There are individuals who make big discoveries, but they’re always building on the work of both their contemporaries, and those who came before. Many of the advances that have come out of the development of science have made life better for countless people around the globe, and that is as it should be. Unfortunately, capitalism cannot abide a commons, and at the publication end, a small number of corporations have managed to create a captive market for themselves, as Rebecca Watson explains:

So at this point, some of you are thinking “Well I guess they’re stealing, which is usually wrong, but it’s not really immoral because those poor students have no legitimate way to access scientific knowledge that they need to advance their career in the sciences.” And others are thinking, “Stealing is wrong no matter what the case, and so Sci-Hub and the people who use it are, in essence, immoral. If you can’t afford the science, you can’t be a scientist. I hear Burger King is hiring.”

But as always on this channel, it’s a bit more complicated than either of those takes. It’s so complicated that we can even question whether or not reading a paper on Sci-Hub is truly “stealing.” Allow me to explain.

Actually, allow me to, um, completely steal a metaphor I read a few years ago in a Vox article written by Brian Resnick and Julia Belluz, because it’s so good I think everyone should hear it (and as always, you can find a full transcript of this video with links to everything on my Patreon, which is linked in the dooblydoo below):

“Imagine your tax dollars have gone to build a new road in your neighborhood.

“Now imagine that the company overseeing the road work charged its workers a fee rather than paying them a salary.

“The overseers in charge of making sure the road was up to standard also weren’t paid. And if you, the taxpayer, want to access the road today, you need to buy a seven-figure annual subscription or pay high fees for one-off trips.”

Ridiculous, right? But it is, in fact, a direct metaphor for scientific publishing.

According to the Congressional Research Service, here in the United States our tax dollars pay for about 43% of basic scientific research, defined as “Experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundations of phenomena and observable facts, without any particular application or use in view.” About 26% is covered by universities and nonprofits, and the remaining 31% is handled by corporations.

When it comes to applied research, which is “Original investigation undertaken to acquire new knowledge; directed primarily, however, toward a specific, practical aim or objective,” our tax dollars cover about 35%, with 11% covered by universities and nonprofits and 55% funded by corporations.

So overall, our tax dollars pay for a huge chunk of the papers that are being published, but we, the people who paid for those studies, cannot view the results of those studies without paying again, to the journal that published them.

I strongly feel that the concept of “pirating science” is very similar to that of “jaywalking” – it was deliberately manufactured to force the general public to limit our own freedom, for the sake of enriching a tiny minority. It is an injustice on many levels, but perhaps the worst part is that a democratic society requires the general public to be informed, and this directly interferes in that for the sole purpose of making profit. It’s another example of how capitalism is incompatible with democracy.

We are increasingly forced to live our lives on the terms of large corporations, who limit our access to everything we need to survive and thrive, solely to benefit themselves. This is unacceptable, and as the ongoing climate chaos demonstrates, it’s beyond unsustainable. I strongly recommend you watch the video and/or read the linked transcript. Part of the revolutionary change we pursue must be to ensure that these barriers to knowledge are destroyed.


  1. planter says

    This is an interesting topic and one that crops up for most working scientists as we decide where to send a paper. This debate has been going on for a very long time (I remember versions of it 15 years ago when I was a grad student), with little resolution. If it is a topic you are interested in diving deeper into, I highly recommend this blog:

    A core part of the problem is that there are very real costs behind publishing a quality paper (e.g. editorial staff, IT infrastructure, copyediting). I have seen credible estimates that these costs can be $1500 per paper (sorry I can’t remember the source right now), and someone has to pay them. While the big publishers are raking in exorbitant profits, we can’t forget that publishing is not free, nor is it easy.

    Who should pay the these costs? In the author pays model, this is an additional drain on limited grant money. A major Canadian funder, mandates open access publications, but has not provided extra funding to match the demand. Otherwise it is a subscription model.

    I don’t know what the solution is here. Much of the problem is that access is not a primary driver of publishing decisions by scientists. Am I going to advise my PhD. student to publish in an open access journal with limited readership, or in a leading journal with high name recognition published by one of these companies. I can tilt at the windmill, or I can help my student get a job and advance their career.

  2. atomjz says

    Also worth noting: even though I am powerfully anti-capitalist, these journals can be attacked from within the framework of capitalist philosophy as well. Example: as a working scientist with access to every journal article I could ever want through my university library subscriptions, I still ALWAYS use scihub, because posting a link there takes all of 10 seconds, whereas using my library takes 5 minutes of proxy navigation, sign-in, proprietary reader loading, etc.

    Online journals are the epitome of failure as a service. They are subpar, slow, inefficient. If actual market forces were allowed to work, these journal companies would be devoured alive immediately for their disastrous, garbage product delivery.

  3. another stewart says

    I’ve read that there’s a good chance that SciHub will win the Indian case – that Indian law has a broader scope for fair use, including academic research.

  4. Cutty Snark says

    I can certainly imagine there are publishing costs associated with producing papers – IT, editorial staff, etc. However, to the best of my knowledge these figures are not typically available for anyone to examine. And when the editor-in-chief of Nature suggests internal costs are £20,000 – £30,000 per paper, I am afraid I am a little sceptical of how that number has been calculated (for example, are they looking at the true cost per article, or are they including editorial content which they pay for with subscriptions? Who knows?). “Credible” estimations lose something of their credibility, I feel, without that source data – after all, Elsevier’s 37% net profit margin (putting it, IIRC, somewhere around twice as profitable as Google, and even a shade ahead of banking) and €1.1 billion profit would seem to suggest that they are not exactly in sackcloth and ashes territory.

    It is true that this debate has been going on for a long time, but it seems to me fairly simple to resolve (though I should note simple is not the same as easy). Each journal should have to provide all necessary data for a full breakdown of their costs for independent assessment. Personally, until the academic publishing industry does act with transparency, I see little reason to trust assertions that they are offering a “fair price” – and that the money they charge is a reflection of the costs involved, rather than merely a way of siphoning public money into private pockets.

    Real costs there certainly are – and maybe it really does cost a publisher hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands per article – but it seems to me until we actually establish what they are and how they are distributed, sensible discussion over the value of journals and the service they provide will prove near impossible. Consequently, concern about who pays (and how) seems more than a little premature.

    I certainly wouldn’t blame any individual for choosing to publish in prestige journals rather than less prestigious open access (we act within the society we have and not the one we’d wish for, after all), for it seems to me this is a systemic issue which requires systemic intervention rather than expecting academics to try to fight this on a personal basis.

    Until then, questionable though sci-hub certainly may be, I cannot find it within myself to blame anyone who avails themselves of it. When I cannot access articles that I have written due to the high costs of the journal fees, it does suggest that something has gone a little awry, no?

    Just a thought.

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