Academic Science Losing its Soul
In “How Academic Science Gave Its Soul to the Publishing Industry” (Issues, Winter 2020), Mark W. Neff analyzes how the academic publishing industry has distorted scientific research and academic practice. Using the example of Mexico, he shows how the research topics, the speed to obtain results, the methods used, the sectors that can access scientific information, and the degree and progress of the exploitation of academics as free labor have been profoundly modified by the corporate publishing system.
Being a researcher at Mexico’s National System of Researchers, or SNI, I confirm all this being true. It is worth mentioning that the new administration of Mexico’s National Council of Science and Technology has in just its first year made important modifications, but it is not easy to change the existing evaluation and monitoring procedure. The result, according to Neff, is a dysfunctional market that greatly influences science policy. This might change, though not without struggle, given the advance of the Open Source system—but even then it may prove difficult to avoid the problematic scoring system and other issues.
The problem with the dysfunctional market, however, arises not from the adjective but the noun. Markets are not fixed entities. They are dynamic and show two trends in any economic sector: concentration (increase) of capital, and centralization (mergers and acquisitions). Neff gives examples of both trends with amounts, names, and dates. Therefore, it is the proper functioning of the market, not its dysfunctionality, that is at stake.
Beyond Neff’s criticism of how corporate publishing houses can adversely affect autonomy and accountability in the sciences, there are other areas that need attention, such as the role of technology in science. Suppose scientists have freed themselves from corporate control of publishing houses. Does this mean they have freed themselves from corporate control of the physical and virtual equipment they use? I have in mind such things as computers and the internet. The question is pertinent.
Researchers work with computers that use software that forces users to spend hundreds or even thousands of hours in overcoming absurd updates, without considering associated costs. True, there is free software, but that is used primarily in corporate computers.
Also, laboratory researchers are subject to protocols that have defined indicators incorporated in their physical equipment that are required for the results to be accepted by regulators. All such equipment is controlled by corporations and dominant countries. For example, if a researcher discovers that a particular chemical element manifests toxic responses in the second generation of mice, this information won’t be given proper attention if the simulation PBPK system (or a similar one) accepted by government regulators discards that analysis, or if accepted software looks only at toxic responses in the first generation.
Technology is not neutral, and the concentration and centralization of markets becomes more entrenched.
Professor, Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, Mexico