Academia can be a terrible place to work. A recent survey found that over 40% of researchers experienced bullying or harassment, over 20% felt pressure from supervisors to get specific results and that there is a mental health crisis in academia, particularly among graduate students and junior researchers. Capitalism is frequently blamed for this mess. Although academia is non-profit and researchers typically do not sell anything, capitalist dictates, such as “competition, accumulation, profit-maximising and increasing labour-productivity” are features of the academic workplace and so capitalism is blamed for ruining science and for the exploitation or “superexploitation” of academic workers.
Some of academia’s problems can certainly be blamed on capitalism. Extreme competition for limited jobs and funding has resulted in “unkind and aggressive” working conditions and to the fact that less than a third of researchers feel secure in their careers, according to a survey by the UK’s Wellcome Trust. This places researchers under stress and can encourage research misconduct, such as data falsification or fabrication, as desperate academics try to get an edge on their competitors. The university sector’s use of adjunct teaching staff and the casualization of the higher education workforce has also often been blamed on universities’ tendency to put profit before people.
Like many postdocs, I haven’t had a contract lasting more than two years since I obtained my PhD, so I am sympathetic to complaints about long-term job insecurity and excessive competition. But capitalist dictates are not the whole story. Too often, the academy’s own leaders have chosen to ignore expert advice and declined to implement policies that might make the profession less exploitative.
Expert Advice Ignored
The fierce competition in the academy is fundamentally due to an excess of qualified job-seekers. There are too many PhD graduates and not enough permanent academic jobs. But, although labour economists have been calling out the oversupply of PhDs since the 1970s, academic institutions have not responded by reducing enrolments.
This is a classic collective action problem. Graduate students do a large chunk of the research that universities rely on to maintain their reputations and attract research funding and students. If any single university were to enrol fewer graduate students, it would produce less research and get less funding. It would therefore fall in the university rankings and attract fewer students. But universities communicate and act collectively all the time, for example, through trade associations such as the Association of American Universities, U15 in Canada and Group of Eight in Australia. In Europe, the Bologna process has been largely successful in harmonising degree structures across 48 countries since 1998. Yet the academy has ignored expert advice and resisted implementing serious reforms that would reduce the number and change the structure of PhDs, for over four decades.
The Market Provides
If capitalism really is to blame for the poor working conditions in academia, we would expect PhD graduates to fare even worse when faced with actual market capitalism. Yet the opposite is true. PhDs who work in private industry earn thousands more annually than their counterparts in academic and government sectors. How can capitalism dictate that PhDs be valued more highly when they are fully subject to the whims of the market than when they are relatively shielded by the academy, funded by multi-year government grants and charitable endowments?
In fact, private industry may now provide better overall job security than the academy. A PhD primarily prepares graduates for the academic career most PhD students want to pursue. However, since 1969, the percentage of faculty with permanent or tenured positions has halved. Just one fifth of PhDs now secure academic jobs. But, instead of abandoning these excess graduates, the market has picked up the slack and now employs roughly as many PhDs as universities. And with decent job security. Between 2003 and 2017, just 1.6–2.6% of PhD scientists and engineers were unemployed, compared to 2.9–4.9% of those with a bachelor’s degree. While the academy has increasingly failed to provide PhDs with secure employment, the market has given those graduates a livelihood.
Other exploitative systems in the academy involve commercial actors, but the arrangements are consciously and deliberately maintained by academics. Academic publishing is famous for its absurdly exploitative characteristics. In this system, the public pays academics to do research and write papers. These papers are submitted to publishers, who ask other academics to review them. With rare exceptions, reviewers are not paid by publishers. If accepted, the publisher will then sell access to the paper back to universities or, in the case of open access papers, the authors are sent an invoice of $2–5,000. Many academics see publishers as providing poor value, sub-standard service and undermining scholarly values. Some academics have even received threatening legal letters after sharing their own papers.
I am fiercely critical of commercial publishing operations—but this system of exploitation is maintained by academics, not by commercial publishers. Commercial publishers lobby to protect their interests and exploit their market power to maximise profits. But academics choose to maintain and advance an exploitative publishing system, even though alternative models exist.
The current shift towards open access publishing exemplifies academic complicity. For open access, the dominant business model is the article processing charge, a fee levied on accepted articles and paid by academics and universities. That this encourages vanity publication is obvious and the system has resulted in enormous damage, but research funders continue to champion the idea of paying article processing charges to commercial publishers. French linguistics professor and open access advocate Johan Rooryck has admitted that Latin America’s system of “academic-led, not-for-profit, technically proficient and scientifically sound open access publishing” is “open access the right way.” Yet, in a breathtaking about-turn, he claims that “we cannot wish the commercial publishers away” and must continue to sign lucrative publishing contracts with them.
Ironically, rather than condemn academics to endless exploitation by commercial publishers, capitalism gives academics the means to buy or build an alternative, better value product or service. Rooryck represents a coalition of European and international research funders, who are consciously choosing to follow a route that heightens inequality in scholarly communication. This is not exploitation by capitalist dictate, it is a failure of courage and imagination on the part of the academy’s so-called leaders.
Performance, Measurement and Policy
Academic performance metrics are often cited as a cause of exploitation and poor scientific practices and attributed to the dictates of capitalism. But, once again, it is academics who choose to use proprietary, commercial metrics, rather than design fairer metrics and assessment criteria. For example, in order to combat low quality science and predatory publishing, Australia’s Chief Scientist has proposed a heavier reliance on metrics from Clarivate Analytics. There is no capitalist dictate that the academy must use commercial publishing and analytics services, yet academics and scientists repeatedly choose to do so.
In China, major changes are now underway to make academic incentive systems fairer. The importance of some of the academy’s most hated metrics is being devalued. For example, the journal impact factor, which is calculated based on citations, is now just one of several measurements that will be used. Requirements that PhD students publish before they can graduate have been relaxed and peer review and expert assessments are being given greater weight. This shows that a little policy leadership can make a real difference to academic researchers.
Academic work is often exploitative and capitalist dictates, such as competition, productivity maximisation and profit-seeking, are frequently blamed for this, in both journals and the popular press. But these factors are not solely responsible for academia’s short-term contracts, low wages and systems of perverse incentives. Capitalist markets have provided career lifelines for thousands of PhD students and graduates, by providing well-paid and secure job opportunities in the private sector. And, while commercial entities are eager to profit from systemic exploitation in academia, they do not always create or maintain these systems. That work is expertly done by academics themselves.