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The recent post on Scholarly Kitchen about SciHub and its attendant comments provide a good illustration of Marx’s theory of historical materialism. In the article and comment section, two ideologies struggled for supremacy. One we might characterize as ‘pro-Access’ - supportive of Open Access in general or SciHub in particular - and another we might characterize as ‘status quo’. The status quo ideology occupies a range from ‘there’s nothing wrong with scholarly publishing’ to ‘we recognize the issues with scholarly publishing, but we think things will eventually sort themselves out’. This case provides an unusually clear cut target for a historical-materialist - or Marxist - analysis. This struck me when I first read the post, and I wanted to get some thoughts down on the subject. These notes are provisional and perhaps overgeneralized, but may provide food for further thought.

Scientific publishing arose alongside modern science itself, part of an ecosystem that included societies like the Royal Society (established in 1660) and the Académie des sciences (1666). Science, and scientific publishing, developed just prior to - and contributed to - the Industrial Revolution, and so is inextricably linked with the technological and industrial developments of capitalism itself.

Historical materialism tells us that the forces of production engender certain relations within society, but that as the forces of production develop (modernize, etc), those relations become an obstacle to further development. In the words of the Communist Manifesto

We see then: the means of production and of exchange, on whose foundation the bourgeoisie built itself up, were generated in feudal society. At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and of exchange, the conditions under which feudal society produced and exchanged, the feudal organisation of agriculture and manufacturing industry, in one word, the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder. Into their place stepped free competition, accompanied by a social and political constitution adapted in it, and the economic and political sway of the bourgeois class. (Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Penguin Classics, p. 85) Online version

A similar movement is going on before our eyes. The development of computerization, the internet, and the newest digital technologies have made the traditional system of scientific publishing (or scholarly publishing more generally) not only obsolete, but ‘so many fetters’ that must be ‘burst asunder’. Scientific publishing is now a hindrance to the sharing of knowledge, and thus to the rapid development of new technologies, which are the driving force behind economic development, just as they were during the Industrial Revolution.

The rise of peer-to-peer technologies, open-source software development, and Open Access publishing are all part of a network of changes in the relations of production, changes in how we work and how we control work, how we produce knowledge and how we share knowledge. Peer-to-peer, open-source, and open-access can be understood as attempts to circumvent the existing relations which now stand as fetters to economic development.

It stands to reason that peer-to-peer - the freeing up of information flows - should have affected consumer media (e.g. mp3 and movie sharing) first, given that entertainment media are more readily recognized as commodities than the artefacts of scholarly publishing. But the ‘piratization’ of scholarly publishing was inevitable from the moment Napster was invented (1999), if not from the first broadcast of the first pirate radio station. SciHub does not run contrary to the development of capitalism, but is in fact made inevitable by the technological changes that have driven the development of the economy since the 1960s. One of the indicators of ideological conflict masking the fundamental identity of social positions is when the two sides of an argument (in this case the ‘pro-Access’ and ‘status quo’ sides) see themselves as fundamentally opposed, as striking a blow against neoliberal capitalism and for bourgeois rigour and respectability, when in reality both sides merely represent a ‘generation gap’ in the relations of production at this moment in twenty-first century capitalism.

But as in all cultural change in every class society, there are those who benefit from the status quo, and those who do not benefit, but do not see the obstacle. Both sides, however, are part of a struggle between the relations of society and the forces of production. Both sides are integral to the dialectic development of capitalism over time. Both sides evince an ideology that, in the end, supports capitalism at different moments of its existence: either the traditional capitalism of scientific publishing and Royal Societies, or else the new, digital capitalism of liberated information flows. As a Marxist, I recognize not only that the pro-Access side must eventually be victorious, but also that, while Open Access does not strike a blow against capitalism, it does contribute - through furthering its development and ‘heightening its contradictions’ - to the hastening of its end.


Sam Popowich

Discovery Systems Librarian, University of Alberta

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