46. The Market Failure of Scientific Knowledge

This text discusses how access to scientific knowledge is scandalously unaffordable to the vast majority of humans, hindering public debate and increasing global inequalities. Human knowledge belongs to the world.

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 27 includes the right to “share in scientific advancement and its benefits”. The logic is that while particular inventions might belong to individuals, the advancement of human consciousness as a whole is a common good that belongs to humanity.

    However, in practice most scientific knowledge is hoarded behind shockingly inaccessible paywalls. The standard way of disseminating scientific discussions and conclusions from studies is to publish them in so called journals, which these days are mostly published online in the form of bundles of articles. Let us suppose you want to read this article of mine about how people in Nuevo León look at poor people. It would cost you 50 dollar to access it for 48 hours; and 136 dollar to read the edition it was printed in. It gets worse when we look at books, such as this ironic 1000+ dollar book on business ethics. And these are just examples from social science, in exact sciences these numbers can rise. In what follows we will first discuss why this is problematic for society, before exploring the nature of this failure, and finally, look at some solutions and developments. Before we start I must note that not all scientific findings are hidden behind paywalls. Sometimes researches publish their results themselves (usually via a university or NGO website) in the form of reports, and some journals do offer free access for readers. We will come back to this at the end.

    The paywalls that do hoard most of the knowledge are problematic for both the general public and on an academic level. We live in times where science and more broadly facts have lost much relevance in public debates, as can be seen in the proliferation of fake news and the fierce debates regarding for example vaccines in recent times. In an information environment when conspiracy theories dominate, being able to shares studies can be a valuable tool to improve public debate. Unfortunately, ‘hey, pay 50 dollar to check out my evidence bro!’ is a rather unconvincing proposition. Besides that, we must remember that it is the citizenry who indirectly pays for publicly funded research projects. In particular in the fields of social science and humanities this covers a large part of all published material. Yet you as a citizen in the majority of cases do not get to see the results of what you funded. Instead, citizens have to rely on second hand science journalism to hear about developments, which they are unable to verify themselves.

    In the academic world the impact depends much on the geographical context, as many (richer) Western universities buy subscriptions in bulk from the publishers. While the plea for free knowledge has already been made by many colleagues of mine, what El Extranjero Politico can add is the experience from somebody who moved from a European university to a public Mexican one. Despite being part of a large public university (200.000+ students), compared to my past situation I now normally have to let go of 70% of the scientific articles I would like to read when preparing a project. While one *could* in theory buy this access, for a normal paper one usually uses at least 20 references, which is unreasonable to ask if one would know the salary of your servant. In this context, replacing the word ‘free’ with ‘accessible’ (5$) would already be a step forward. This massive inequality of access only piles up on existing disadvantages that scientists outside the West have, which is includes language barriers to a predominantly English market and less public and private funding to start with. Before blaming the universities themselves, we should keep in mind that countries who suffer from this normally also have more pressing education needs, such as building classrooms or keeping their teachers out of poverty.

     This situation is worse for students, in particular of smaller universities or high schools. Students are asked to use academic sources in dozens of their homework, but are essentially restricted to using open access information from news networks, NGO’s and international organizations, in addition to what their local libraries have to offer. The barriers to scientific knowledge thus only serve to enlarge global inequalities, safely keeping the south behind in scientific advancements. In a recent study of global dream jobs, Somalia was the only country to list scientist – good luck to them.

But why is this so? Let us leave all that communist heresy about human rights behind for a second, and ask the simply capitalist question: why can a printed celebrity gossip magazine be obtained for ten dollars or less, but a digital anthropological or medical magazine has more than ten times the cost? One might think that the content for the scientific one is harder to gather, given the costs of doing the research. In reality the opposite is true: while the gossip magazine has to pay journalists; scientists themselves send their articles (pre-formatted and ready) entirely free of charge to journals. In addition, as far as journals are concerned (with books there are sometimes royalties) the authors don’t receive a single cent payment from the sales of their articles. But, you might say, what about the work of fact checking and verifying these studies? Well, that is also free. What makes science reliable is that each scientific publication is reviewed and fact checked by at least two other scientists who have knowledge of the subject (the ‘peer review’ system). While there can be exceptions for books, for journals this reviewing is an entirely unpaid form of overwork that academics are expected to do ‘for the cause’. Most of us gladly do so since we want to spread science as a matter of professional honor, but it does taste sour that profits are made off this.

    That leaves us with the costs of editing the journal and the cost of hosting the websites. While these costs are real, we must also keep in mind that hundreds of public universities around the world do this without complaining. So why is the gossip magazine cheaper despite having higher costs? Logically, I see two options: despite themselves receiving free products, the scientific publishers are greedy enterprises without much competition who willingly charge high prices; AND/OR they have to charge higher margins to recover the investment due to the small audience they serve. The latter is of course partly a chicken or egg discussion (less access = less audience), but let us assume it is a matter of impotence rather than greed. This is still a market failure, as with the failed ‘commodity’ of scientific knowledge less demand somehow makes the price go up instead of down. These situations are not unheard of, since for example many museums and local theatres also need subsidies to remain accessible. But it does make a case for public intervention.

So what is to be done? If we first look at how already existing free access publications work, we see that they come in roughly two variants: pay to publish and public subsidies. In the first variant articles are still published by the big commercial publishers, who shif the costs from consumers to authors. Articles are ‘open access’ because the authors paid anywhere between 2.500 and 10.000 dollar to ‘unlock’ them. Policy makers could demand publicly funded research to submit their conclusions via this system. One major policy initiative that embraces this logic is the recent White House policy, which wants all publicly funded research to be freely available to the (American?) public. It is however unclear if they will place any pressure on the publishers, or just pressure universities to pay the cost. Such a policy is not without problems, as it can increase the global inequality discussed earlier. In those contexts, the fees to remove those paywalls can rival entire research budgets for smaller projects in social science or humanities. If asked if I or my boss will pay five to ten times my salary to ‘unlock’ a PDF, the only menu options that I can see are ‘No!’ and ‘No mames!’ – but maybe it’s my eyesight. 

    The other variant of free scientific knowledge concerns journals that are hosted by public entities and universities. These are free, because the costs of editing are incorporated into the salaries of staff that is already on the payroll, or the organization receives subsidies to operate these journals. For example, my recent work on calculating the feasibility of unemployment insurance can be freely accessed, since my own university hosts it. Alternatively, some journals use an advertisement, donation or crowd funding system. While less abusive, this logic also has complications, as it might raise concerns of quality or partiality due the more direct connection to governments. Additionally, we must remember that the commercial publishers already own most of the scientific papers, so this would only help with new research unless those publishers themselves would be bought out.

    A third alternative would be to sidestep the journal system entirely, and just ask researcher to upload their work to (publicly funded) open databases, which of course might come with problems in marketing and finding the needle in the haystack. Furthermore, it is unclear how peer review would function in such a context.

All options are difficult, but since we already established that scientific knowledge is a market failure, long term some form of nationalization of this field is required to make it truly public. The problems outlined in this essay might be of little short term policy relevance for most, but long term matter to keep science both in society and the third world. If one could dream aloud, many of the concerns regarding this or that government could be sidestepped by having the United Nations itself ‘inter-nationalize’ this market. Since this organization is already concerned with world heritage and certain scientific applications such as health, it would fall within its expertize.