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.