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Is profit controlling science? Or is this yet another core feature of neoliberalism?

By Jeroen De Man
on May 13, 2016

This editorial addresses two of my current frustrations: the relentless addiction to profit-making and science’s dependence on it. There is nothing wrong in earning an income, but my sense of unease starts when profit-making becomes an end in itself. I have a hard time understanding our faith in the religion of brazen profit making which can have huge repercussions on equity and social cohesion. In this piece I will explore irrational profit making within the context of access to information – focusing specifically on the business of scientific publishing.

Publishing in academic journals is a business. An academic journal employs people, develops and sells a product, much like any other business. However, profit  margins of commercial scientific publishers reach on average 35% and are fairly stable. My big frustration is that for-profit publishers  not only reap the benefits of scientists’ dedication and taxpayers’ money, but they also put their work behind paywalls thereby limiting their readers to those who can afford to purchase articles, or have institutional access to these journals. Such for-profit publishers prioritize their shareholders instead of those who have carried out the research or invested in it.

So what is the benefit of trading a unique commodity? In the case of academic writing, published articles are usually unique in their content – giving publishers a monopoly. Do such monopolies increase efficiency? In the case of publishing, the opposite seems to be the case.  The “true cost” of publishing (profit not included) is significantly lower for open access compared to subscription journals.

Is it fair to make knowledge only available for the ones who are able and willing to pay a high price for it?  Limiting access to information for a wider audience has tremendous consequences for the progress of science and global equity.  Rising costs of such journals mean even the most prestigious universities in the West are not able to keep up. I believe equal access to information is one of the cornerstones to enhance global equity and access to evidence important even from a right to health perspective.

So what will it take to bring about change in how scientific papers are published and accessed in the future? As consumers and producers, scientists have an underutilized voice and authority to influence the nature of academic publishing – especially in the interest of access to information. However, for many scientists such a move might be in conflict with the desire for the status and recognition that comes from having publications in journals which are ranked by their impact factor.

Currently, we are witnessing an important change in the way in which people access and share information and more is to come. The open science movement is flourishing. The concept of open access journals is gaining popularity, and even the trend of open data is successfully emerging.  I believe, in the near future, modern science will not appear in the form of finished products developed by and accessible to mainly western scientists, but rather, it will change into a global open source dynamic and interactive system.

There are, of course, valid concerns on the quality and reliability of open source publications and data.  Take for instance the problematic activities of predatory open access journals which make money from fees for publication while delivering an extremely poor quality of publications.  However, if managed well, examples show that open access can often produce very positive and effective results. For example, R – a software for statistical computing and graphics – is now a powerful and reliable statistical software.  Wikipedia reached a similar or better accuracy than any traditional encyclopedia.

Coming back to the role of scientists in the way in which the academic publishing industry functions, we notice some scientists challenge the rising costs of journals. Recently, 2600 scientists signed a petition, at a collective “cost of knowledge movement” to not publish in Elsevier’s journals, nor undertake any referee or editing work for the company.  In a more unconventional step, Alexandra Elbakyan, a 27 year old neuroscientist from Kazakhstan, made her point on the need for open access clear with her site, Sci-hub. Through her website, Alexandra is making millions of papers accessible to millions of people. This is of course an ethically gray area and has the legal implications of copyright infringement among other issues. She is also risking financial ruin, extradition, and imprisonment, especially after she got sued by Elsevier. Unlawful or not, her “disruptive” site is now quickly growing in popularity and has a fair shot at changing the methodology of ‘global science’.

For the moment though, one can imagine the impact Western scientists could have if they would unite to make science more accessible. Such a movement would strongly contribute to progress in science and global equity. A collective movement of scientists can have an impact on the high costs of access to information, and create an environment where information is accessible to all. Are we as global scientists proactive enough to fight for such a cause or does this go the very core of neoliberalism, more specifically in  21st century academic environments  ?

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