Against capital

This is the text of a talk given at the conference ReCon: Publishing for Early Career Researchers – Immortalisation, Recognition & Metrics’, in Edinburgh on 30 June 2017, in the session entitled ‘Publishing’s Future: Disruption and Evolution within the Industry’.


The ways in which scholars exchange and share their work have evolved through pragmatic responses to the political and economic contexts in which they are embedded. So rather than being designed to fulfil their function in an optimal way, our methods of scholarly communication have been distorted by the interests of capital and by neoliberal logic. If these two interlinked political forces – that suffuse all aspects of our lives – are the reason for the mess we are currently in, then surely any alternative scholarly communication system we create should be working against them, not with them. The influence of capital in scholarly publishing, and the overwhelming force of neoliberalism in our working practices, is the problem. So when the new ‘innovative disrupters’ are fully aligned with the political forces that need to be dismantled, it is questionable that the new way of doing things is a significant improvement.



I’d like to open by saying that I’m aware that many of the speakers, organisers, and sponsors of this conference are involved in exactly the kind of initiatives that I’m going to be critiquing, and just to clarify I’m not directing my remarks towards any particular individuals or organisations; this is about having a more rigorous understanding of just what it is we’re all collectively trying to achieve. The kind of topics that are discussed at events like this are often about recognising that the way we currently do research is not necessarily the best way and it’s really important to question the received wisdom and standard practices of academia in order to think through alternative ways of working. In that light, I think it’s vital that we maintain a critical approach to any attempts to change the way publishing happens as well.

It’s not possible to be politically neutral so I’m not going to pretend to be, and I’ve chosen to speak about this topic today because I think it’s important to understand and make visible the political assumptions and ideologies that underlie our research publication processes. Some people like to think that taking a hardline stance against any for-profit organisations in the scholarly communication sphere is an unnecessary distraction, perhaps because they think that what is really important is transitioning to a more ‘efficient’ system and we just need to get there however we can. I disagree. How we do things, and the governance and ownership of our infrastructure, are at least as important as the end result.

I’m an open access advocate, I believe it has the potential to create a more equitable way for producing and sharing knowledge. But I’m currently doing a PhD on open access policy specifically looking at the ways that open access has been co-opted as one more tool for the neoliberalisation of higher education. (I’ll define neoliberalism in a moment.) So the reason I’ve called this talk ‘Against capital’ is that to me, the core problems that we have within scholarly communication are not technical problems that can be ‘fixed’ by new technology; they are social problems, that exist because of the power imbalances that are inherent in capitalist modes of organisation. So any new ‘disruptive’ or ‘innovative’ tool or company that claims to provide a better way of helping researchers, but still works with the grain of capitalism, I think we should all be highly sceptical of.

Capitalism is the economic system that we all live in, and that all of our interactions as researchers, as students, and as people take place within. Methods of capitalist organisation – resources being given a price to be exchanged in markets to produce a profit for the owners – have become so deeply engrained in our cultural imaginary that it’s sometimes a struggle to remember that things can be otherwise. Neoliberalism is a political project to re-shape all social relations so that they conform to the logic of capital.1

Under neoliberal regimes, policy is designed to encourage us to think in a self-interested transactional way about how we all interact with each other. It turns us all not into capitalists, but rather into mini-capital ourselves, to act as what has been termed ‘entrepreneurs of ourselves’.2 In higher education, this is reflected in the quantification and metricisation of every aspect of life in universities, whether that’s through the tuition fees that – south of the border – put a price on the supposed value of education and turn students into ‘consumers’ who supposedly make decisions on what and where to study based on rational indicators of projected future earned income – the new Longitudinal Education Outcomes, or LEO, data is all about this; or through the rankings that pit universities against each other, in just one of the many ways that academics are forced to act competitively amongst themselves rather than co-operatively. Neoliberalism in education is not just about the overtly financial things like tuition fees, it’s about enforcing a market-like way of thinking about every aspect of our behaviour. When you’re told you need to publish in journals with a high impact factor and improve your h-index, you need to measure the impact of your research by tracking metrics of your research outputs, purely to demonstrate your value in the marketplace to get that job or grant rather than having anything to do with the actual quality of the work, that’s all part of it too.

If we need metrics, then yes they should be open metrics that work for as many people as possible and give a nuanced picture of how research is shared and used. But if the only reason we need metrics at all is for people’s own careers, to justify to others in quantifiable terms why they should be hired, then any new or alternative metrics are still playing into these neoliberal methods of control. Of course, it’s not just for early career researchers themselves to confront these issues, I fully understand the pressures and difficulties involved in just being able to subsist and have enough income to live in order to do research at all; it’s almost impossible not to play the game. And I recognise that to take risks with your own scholarly communications decisions is a lot easier if you have a certain amount of privilege. These are structural issues that, abetted by neoliberal government policy, have become embedded in the institutional structures of universities, and in turn shape our behaviour.

Although I’ve been using some economic termimology, I’m talking about neoliberalism and capitalism as political projects, rather than economic, because they are fundamentally about power and who holds it. But since power relations are often inscribed in terms of wealth and your relation to capital, this is also fundamentally about labour, the work that we do and how we’re rewarded for it. That’s why when people talk about disruption, or creative disruption, and use companies like Uber as an example, to me that is a huge red flag to be extremely wary. Uber’s ‘disruption’ is not about disrupting abstract inefficient processes of how resources are allocated, it’s about disrupting organised labour; labour laws; job protection. It projects a neoliberal version of freedom, because neoliberalism is about freedom for capital, not freedom for people. It ignores the needs of the people who do the work. Is that really what we want as a model for how universities should be run, or how research should be conducted? I won’t say any more specifically about Uber, but Audrey Watters gave an excellent talk at the University of Edinburgh recently about the ‘Uber-isation of education’ that you can watch online.3

These two interlinked political forces – the interests of capital and the neoliberal project that enforces its logic – that suffuse all aspects of our lives, these are the reason for the mess we are currently in with regards to academic publishing; the influence of capital in the scholarly publishing market and the overwhelming force of neoliberalism in our working practices. So surely any alternative scholarly communication system we create should be working against these forces, not with them. So when the new ‘innovative disrupters’ are fully aligned with the political forces that need to be dismantled, I don’t see them as a significant improvement.

To bring this back to open access, specifically; I think making open access to publications is a great thing, it vastly increases the number of people who could potentially read and make use of research. But if we look at the UK’s open access policy, there are two main strands. One is from the research councils, who have provided a lot of money to universities to pay APCs – over £80m so far, over five years.4 Now, publishing an article as open access does not necessarily mean the author needs to find money to pay a fee, most open access journals are funded through other means and are free for both authors and for readers. But some journals have these up-front fees called article processing charges, or APCs. And if you want to publish your article with a journal from the major publishers – Elsevier, Wiley, Springer – they are usually closed-access journals, where you can only make an individual article open by finding the money to pay an APC. These are called hybrid journals. And most of the money from RCUK (the research councils), around 80% of it, has been spent on hybrid journals; most of it has gone to the same few big subscription publishers. In other words, open access is achieved for a lot of articles, but it’s still a lot of money flowing straight from public funds to these corporations, who take 30-40% of their income as profit. Open access does not have to be like that, but in the UK, that is to a large extent what is happening. The policy was designed to make that happen – it was designed to ensure a continuity of profits for the industry.

The other policy in the UK is HEFCE’s mandate, which is about sharing author manuscripts – so accepted versions of journal articles before publishers make them into a pretty PDF version of record – which is another great way of sharing research. You’re probably familiar with subject repositories like arXiv or bioRxiv, or universities’ own institutional repositories. What concerns some people about the policy is the fact that it is linked to the REF (the Research Excellence Framework). The experience of the REF, for many academics in the UK, is that it’s a disciplinary tool that constrains what kind of research outputs you can generate, and where you can publish them, and it erases any meaning for the work beyond it’s signifier as a unit of value that can be quantified in this administrative framework of competitive rankings. Linking open access with the REF can be considered problematic for its portrayal of open access as just another administrative burden to comply with, rather than as part of a progressive movement for social justice. On the other hand, as with the RCUK policy, the HEFCE policy is making a lot more work open access, it is having a real effect. It’s important to recognise that.

On the subject of power within universities… If you are angry about Elsevier because of its role as a kind a parasite feeding off our labour to extract value for shareholders, you should also be angry about universities like Cambridge and Oxford for their continued role in maintaining unequal power relations, both internally and within broader society because of their deep influence among the political and economic elite. Harvard University made a bold statement when it came out in 2012 saying that it was going to have to cancel some journal subscriptions, because even the richest university in the world couldn’t afford to subscribe to every journal. That makes a great headline, and Harvard does have a really forward-thinking open access policy, but really it’s bullshit – Harvard’s endowment is so big that they could use some of their billions to buy Elsevier, and they would still be one of the richest educational institutions in the world. Inequalities of wealth, of power, are at least as visible within the higher education system, especially in terms of who gets to participate, than within the academic publishing system. I’d urge everyone who wants to understand more about the deep structures that govern academia to read some history books, if you’ve not already, especially about the racist and white supremacist origins of colonial universities such as Harvard. And that’s not just an American problem – the racist ideology of a supposedly ‘scientific’ biological basis for white supremacy was to a significant degree fabricated by American and Scottish scholars in the medical school right here in Edinburgh in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.5 All white people are complicit in benefiting from the outcome of the combination of racism and capitalism that was the imperial project, and that funded, among other things, higher education.

So a critical understanding of the history of our institutions and our practices is vital, I think, to help us think through what kind of system we really want to construct to exchange and share scholarship for the long term. Because a lot of the ways we do things have evolved in a piecemeal way through pragmatic responses to political and economic contexts, and to a degree it has to be that way; but I think there is room to take a more deliberate approach, to take care in constructing inclusive governance structures for services and infrastructure, so that organisations are accountable to the research community they serve.

To conclude on a more positive note… there are ways to move beyond the legacy systems of scholarly communication and use digital technology to open things up and make it easier and perhaps quicker for us to collectively do our work and push the boundaries of knowledge, but we do not need to rely on venture capital and similar methods of finance. To make it very clear, I’m talking about collectively managing resources that are collectively generated, for the benefit of all. There’s a word for that – socialism. It can work for maintaining a nation’s water supply, it can work for healthcare, and it can work for the creation and distribution of digital resources and scholarly discourse. Collective and co-operative ways of funding and running organisations in this space already exist, whether that’s whole education institutions such as the co-operative university of Mondragon in the Basque region or the Social Science Centre in Lincoln; or the collective funding of open access using consortial membership models like the non-profit publisher Open Library of Humanities or Knowledge Unlatched; these relatively small-scale examples prove the principle that it can work, so let’s think about what it might mean to scale this up. The work of writing, reviewing, editing, and often even publishing is already being done by the academic community, so let’s concentrate on building collective governance models and funding structures to ensure it stays that way, and that people are adequately renumerated for their work but without relying on for-profit service providers whose primary obligation is to make profit, not to further knowledge.



1  Brown, Wendy (2015) Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books); Davies, William (2014) The Limits of Neoliberalism (London: Sage); Peck, Jamie (2010) Constructions of Neoliberal Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press); Stedman Jones, Daniel (2012) Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

2  Foucault, Michel (2004) The Birth of Biopolitics (London: Palgrave Macmillan), p.226.

3  Watters, Audrey (2017) Driverless Ed-Tech: The History of the Future of Automation in Education. video:, text:

4  Lawson, Stuart (2017) RCUK open access block grant allocation 2013-17. figshare. DOI:

5  Wilder, Craig Steven (2013) Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York: Bloomsbury)

8 thoughts on “Against capital

  1. Thanks for the insights! Good luck with the dissertation!
    How about rebuilding the academy on commons? OR why be a socialist when you can be a common-ist? The co-op models are mostly commons-friendly anyhow. Rich Bartlett (Loomio) summarizes a talk by Yochai Benkler that describes three tensions.

    These tensions reflect the impact of neo-liberalism. I think they are really important for the academy to address.
    A group is starting to gather insights to imagine the new academy. Hop on if you wish:

    1. Thanks! The provisional title for the as-yet-unwritten final chapter of my thesis is ‘The Commons as an Alternative Policy Framework’ :)

  2. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the OA2020 initiative from the Max Planck Society.

  3. Thank you so much for articulating that so clearly, and giving me a a better platform to do my daily work. I’ve been thinking in terms of those lovely socialist demands that look so reasonable on the face, but as the implications unravel, they imply a much larger and comprehensive change. We have had free-to-read as an endpoint for long enough – I’d like to suggest a slogan for academic research: “never pay to read or publish”. Among progressives, not paying to read is pretty well accepted, but having said that there are lots of opportunities for commercial reuse of open material that make good sense. Paying to publish, as you point out, is fraught. I like to order publishers on a spectrum, from principled to questionable – and questionable publishers include all of those that profiteer from work we’ve already paid for as a collective.

    Thanks again for the great talk.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Stuart. I have so many comments, that I better refrain from putting them on Twitter and use this space instead.

    (1) Generally speaking, it is very obvisous that your picture of commercial/capitalist publishers is influenced by the biggest corporate publishers notably Elsevier, Wiley, and SpringerNature. However, the global scholarly publication ecosystem includes over 2,000 publishers, the majority of them is publishing with passion rather than greed. The capitalist truth is that for most publishers, publishing is a very precarious business based on self-exploitation.

    (2) Describing the scholarly publishing system as a mess which needs to be fixed uncomfortably echos the voice of more authoritarian leaders. (Remeber Trump’s perpetual eruption about the mess that Obamacare represents.) From a scholarly perspective a more nuanced evaluation of the ecosystem/market seems appropriate. Most likely the result would be a very mixed picture including many, many scholars who – let me put in carefully – reason for improvement to varying degrees. In some cases, the reason might simply be that their favourite publishering houses deliver an honest publishing experience & products.


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