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Letters: Academic research and the profit motive

Ben Goldacre (Bad science, 3 September) and George Monbiot (Comment, 30 August) are right to worry about academic publishing. It is indeed dominated by multinationals whose only rationale is profit. They do not, however, comment on the problems facing those who work for these empires. The publishers benefit from a system where academics, under huge pressure to publish in peer-reviewed journals, write for free. Unlike other forms of publishing, the only paid labour is that of the editorial staff, who struggle to achieve excellence and accuracy while dealing with text written by non-professional writers, many without English as a first language.

But wages have been driven so low that highly trained British editors sometimes end up being paid less than the minimum wage, while working in cultures deeply hostile to collective bargaining. If academic publishing worked like any normal market, there would be customer complaints about the fall in editing standards which often accompanies the multinationals’ inept attempts to outsource. The suggested way forward – free access online – does not currently allow for the need to pay publishing workers at all, let alone a rate commensurate with their skills and experience. One possible solution would be for researchers to include the cost of a fairly funded publishing system in their grant applications – simple and a small increase on budgets. That would spell the end of astronomical charges, create decent wages for decent editing, and encourage the appropriate use of outsourcing rather than the current cost-cutting mayhem.
Bill MacKeith
Vice-chair, NUJ magazine and book industrial council

• Heather Brooke (Comment, 2 September) defends Philip Morris’s use of freedom of information legislation to access research into teenage smoking at the University of Stirling in terms of the possible “commercialisation” of university research. Her article is a striking example of the way in which any wider concept of the public good is being erased from discussion of the social purpose of universities, and replaced by a duty to serve private corporate interests. Research into teenage smoking is funded by the government, in the interest of citizens, in the hope of reducing the number of smokers. How does Ms Brooke imagine Philip Morris will “commercialise” this research, if not by using it to frustrate this aim?

Contrary to the title of her article, many important freedoms that we enjoy as citizens are not extended to businesses: the right to vote and stand for election, for example. FoI legislation was designed to empower the citizen against the state. It is perverted from this purpose when it is used to empower the private corporation against the citizen.
Robert Irvine
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