Surplus Value, Exploitation and Scientific Publishing

The August edition of Physics World – house organ of the Institute of Physics – contains an article about Open Access Publishing which is available online here.  In fact, I get a mention in it:

Another vocal critic of the science-publishing industry has been astronomer Peter Coles from the University of Sussex. “Publishers want a much higher fee than [the real cost of publishing a paper on the Internet] because they want to maintain their eye-watering profit margins, despite the fact that the ‘service’ they provide has been rendered entirely obsolete by digital technologies,” Coles claimed on his blog In the Dark earlier this year. Yet publishers have been fighting back, pointing out that scientists often do not understand how the publishing industry operates and highlighting the many valuable – and expensive – functions they provide to the scientific community. In addition to the often complex process of managing peer review, these include everything from developing and maintaining IT systems to checking papers through plagiarism detection software – none of which comes cheap (see “The value publishers bring”).

Publishers have indeed been fighting back, but you’d expect that of vested interests.  You can read the rest of the article yourself to see if you’re convinced. I’m not. I think it’s a desperate piece of propaganda.

The last comment in the quoted paragraph (in parenthesis) points to a box purporting to explain why scientific journals should be so expensive. The explanations presented in that box  are so obviously  disingenuous that they don’t merit a detailed debunking because the argument can be refuted without any need to refer to the box: note the deliberate confusion between cost (“none of which comes cheap”) and “value” in the last paragraph quoted above.

IOP Publishing (along with  other profiteering organizations of its type) insist that it brings value to scientific papers. It doesn’t. The authors and referees do all the things that add value. What the IOP does is take that value and turn it into its own profits. The fact that enormous profits are made out of this process in itself demonstrates that what the scientific community is being charged is nothing whatever to do with cost.

This reminds me of many discussions I had in my commie student days about surplus value, a concept that I believe was first discussed by Friedrich Engels, but which was explored in great detail by Karl Marx, in Das Kapital. According to the wikipedia page, the term “refers roughly to the new value created by workers that is in excess of their own labour-cost and which is therefore available to be appropriated by the capitalist, according to Marx; it allows then for profit and in so doing is the basis of capital accumulation.”

Engels is quoted there as follows:

Whence comes this surplus-value? It cannot come either from the buyer buying the commodities under their value, or from the seller selling them above their value. For in both cases the gains and the losses of each individual cancel each other, as each individual is in turn buyer and seller. Nor can it come from cheating, for though cheating can enrich one person at the expense of another, it cannot increase the total sum possessed by both, and therefore cannot augment the sum of the values in circulation. (…) This problem must be solved, and it must be solved in a purely economic way, excluding all cheating and the intervention of any force — the problem being: how is it possible constantly to sell dearer than one has bought, even on the hypothesis that equal values are always exchanged for equal values?

Marx’s solution of this economical conundrum was central to his theory of exploitation:

…living labour at an adequate level of productivity is able to create and conserve more value than it costs the employer to buy; which is exactly the economic reason why the employer buys it, i.e. to preserve and augment the value of the capital at his command. Thus, the surplus-labour is unpaid labour appropriated by employers in the form of work-time and outputs.

In this context of academic publishing, the workers are scientific researchers and the employers are the publishers. The workers  not only produce the science in the first place, but also carry out virtually all of the actions that the employers claim add value. The latter are simply appropriating the labour of the former, which is exploitation. It has to stop.

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8 Responses to “Surplus Value, Exploitation and Scientific Publishing”

  1. Interesting Peter. It could be said that your situation as you’ve described is a mini-version of the global economy. Let’s say that ‘surplus value’ includes all the e.g. infrastructure costs not wholly borne by the owner of the machinery- as in the boot factory example. The costs of transport, power etc. can be deducted from the ‘profits’ and offset against for tax purposes or added to the costs of product; whereas the wages are usually a fixed cost not linked directly to sales – unlike the managers’ fees/bonuses, usually linked closely to sales of the product because of the obvious benefit to them. Anyway it’s an interesting idea you have brought out of the dark ( and the past with the student days, hat tip to Bob Mitchum etc) All kinds of links possibly to pursue- exploitation hurts all of us and diminishes the social dimension; in my view it’s linked to how democratic is our particular society, with power concentrated more & more in fewer hands.

  2. I’d love to hear more about your commie student days in some other blog post! I’d noticed a bit of socialism in your politics before, but I never heard about this.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’d like to disconnect the economics from your (Peter) comments on science publishing here, because I agree wholeheartedly with the latter but think Marx was simply mistaken (as usual – I have more time for Engels). Trade is not a zero-sum game.

    Yes, scientists do the research, we write the research, we typeset the research, we do the refereeing (and can check for plagiarism by putting two or three random phrases into google – cost zero and takes 5 mins). And we now have the internet for dissemination. It’s just a question of organising ourselves to cut out the middleman, whose charges have grown huge. I go with the Marxist metaphor here: it’s time for a revolution.

    • telescoper Says:

      It is commonplace nowadays in Universities to check for plagiarism in undergraduate projects and masters dissertations, either using Google as you suggest, or by using software such as Turnitin so we have that capability anyway and don’t need to pay the IOP or anyone else a fortune to do it for us.

  4. Alexander Murphy Says:

    A conference I’m involved in organising at the moment is planning on having proceedings. The conference is triennial, and traditionally does this. I was *shocked* to hear that the journal want £8000 plus £1400 per article if it’s to be open access. We’re expecting ~65 articles. Not entirely in jest I suggested we employ someone, use an online printer/published, and keep the significant profit.

  5. “IT systems to checking papers through plagiarism detection software”

    Occasionally, I’ve seen a note on arXiv that a paper looks suspiciously similar to another paper on arXiv with different authors.

  6. […] I’d take the argument further, in fact. I’d say that journals are completely unnecessary. I find all my research papers on the arXiv and most of my colleagues do the same. We don’t need journals yet we keep paying for them. The only thing that journals provide is peer review, but that is done free of charge by academics anyway. The profits of their labour go entirely to the publishers. […]

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