Academia Is a For-Profit Industry

:: academia, rambling

An ill-advised blog post in which I speculate that academia is actually for-profit, but not in the usual sense of “profit”.

Profit is often narrowly construed as about money. It’s not; it’s about value, particularly surplus value. Money is a proxy for value, and often a useful one.

In academia, however, money is not a good proxy for value. I’d argue the primary proxy for value is academia is paper and citation counts, although there are others. And by these measures, academia operates like a for-profit industry with many of the problems that entails: concentration of market power by accumulation of capital, the exploitation of labour, the externalizations of costs, all following the drive for ever higher surplus value. By disguising itself as non-profit, by eschewing money as value, academia disguises these issues.

If paper and citation counts represent value, whence profit? To profit is not to merely produce things of value, but to seek to produce surplus value, and use the capture of that surplus value to incentive production. If papers represent value, then surplus value would represent papers and citation counts beyond what is required to produce the embodied knowledge. If academia were for-profit, we’d expect structural incentives to produce more and more papers and citations, and to produce them more efficiently (or at lower cost anyway). We’d expect to see that academic institutions measure success by increasing profit (i.e., papers and citations). That, for example, academics are hired and retained based on their ability to bring profit to the employing institution. We would expect capital to accumulate that makes increasing profit easier, so some groups accumulate profit that they can reinvest into increasing numbers of papers and publications.

Some of these are easy to test; the others are testable with some straightforward data collection and analysis. I’m not going to do that now because (1) I’m bad at numbers (2) research is my job and no one is paying me for this.

Academics and universities do judge their success, at least in part, by the number of papers and citations. See for example for one formalization of this; it’s like the Dow of CS universities. Or something. Researchers are hired and rewarded based on publication count and citations. These go into the hiring packets for new faculty and faculty up for tenure. Some contracts have specific publications counts you have to hit to make tenure. This is analogous to high-level management positions with profit targets; missing them could well get you fired.

On it’s face, this isn’t necessarily a problem, and in some ways, is less problematic than a for-profit economy in general. At least papers represent knowledge, so we’re incentivizing the production of knowledge. The reasons I dwell are: (1) an incentive to optimize a proxy, a metric, is IMO bad; it leads to perverse incentive, i.e., incentives to optimize merely the metric at the expense of the thing measured. This might not be a problem but for: (2) while papers represent knowledge-as-value, this value can be exchanged for monetary gain, so exploitation of the paper metric is profitable in the usual sense, and at the expense of knowledge.

So, does the “profit” motive lead to exploitation? I’d say so, and in the same predictable ways as the usual profit motive. The easiest ways to increase production and decrease costs aren’t do hard work at making things more efficient, but to lie, cheat, and steal. We see these are work in academia. Made up data, plagiarized papers, etc. But let me zoom in on some higher level stuff.

Exploitation of labour happens, at least until tenure. Grad students are often exploited and receive only a part of the value of their labour, although interesting I’d argue that by the measure of paper and citation count, less exploited than other industries. Grad students usually receive an equal share of the paper count and the citations. However, they might put in a disproportionate share of the labour required to produce a paper. I’ve heard of cases where students are cut out of a paper they worked on, or a supervisor puts almost no work in but receives a paper and citations. Very capitalist—they provided the capital to produce the paper, even if they provide no labour, and receive a share of profit in return. Importantly, though, junior faculty (at least) are exploited as well. Here, it’s not by a direct superior, but indirectly by the institution, through a series of committees of “peers”. “Publish or perish” means they must produce value, papers, or be replaced by the many workers willing to step into the scarce high-demand faculty positions. Even highly respected workers who miss arbitrary targets are denied tenure, because they don’t produce enough profit. Exploitation of the individual worker only ceases if they get tenure, although systemic exploitation continues. In this view, I guess tenure is finally accumulating enough capital to become a capitalist, and live off the rents of capital accumulated? You never have to produce another paper again. Here, the exchange of “profit” for profit seems important.

The analogy to capital accumulation holds as well. The more publications and citations you get, the easier it is to get more. To produce more and more citable papers requires grant funding, top graduate students, and post-docs. To get these, you need to have sufficient grant funding, and sufficient reputation and renown to attract top workers. In a typical for-profit industry, those with the most profit can afford to recruit the best talent, by paying more. In academia, though, salaries as in money are relatively fixed by institutions, not individual advisors (exceptions exist). Instead, academics compete largely on reputations—who can train you to produce, and get you the most, high quality publications. That is, who can help you acquire the most capital-of-academia. Profit should also be translatable into capital, and this happens. Grants and awards look, in part, at publications and citations (and, ironically, other awards received) to decide who gets awards. These grants and award fund more papers and citations. Higher profits lead to the accumulation of capital, which leads to higher profits. Metrics like the H-index even ensure papers and citations depreciate, unless they generate ever higher citations over time.

Costs of production get externalized. The most notable might be, as in many industries, greenhouse gasses. To produce papers and make them well known to gain citations often requires travelling, often internationally, often frequently. One other I worry about, although it’s unclear whether it’s a real problem, is the training of large numbers (I’d argue, unnecessarily large numbers) of PhDs. I’d argue we produce more than academia needs, except that we need them to produce research cheaply. In some places, there is pressure to increase the size of the PhD program. There’s a straightforward way to reduce these costs, and like in other industries, there’s no way in hell we’re doing it: produce less, or produce slower, or both. Of course, like in other industries, there’s reason. If we do stop producing sufficient profit (papers), people will lose their livelihood. Grad students may not get jobs if they don’t produce enough papers presented at international venues. Junior faculty may not get tenure.

I don’t think any of this is a particularly novel observation, except the explicit analogy as profit. And even that I doubt.

And the analogy isn’t perfect, and it’s complicated by the intersection with the money economy. That’s okay; no model is perfect, but some are useful. I think this for-profit model of academia is useful.