Posted by: bluesyemre | April 27, 2022

Money, Media, and Power (Media “sugar daddies” aren’t new, but they are everywhere, including in scholarly publishing)

The richest people and their media, according to the 2021 Forbes 400:

  1. Jeff Bezos — owns the Washington Post
  2. Elon Musk — poised to own Twitter
  3. Mark Zuckerberg — owns Facebook

Numbers 4-10 include the founders of Microsoft and Google, and the owner of Bloomberg.

In scholarly publishing, proxy billionaires — large funding entities with endowments in the billions and run by a few people who use the perceived power projected by these huge sums — have been warping the market for years.

With a skeptical eye, OA can be viewed as a way to turn publishers into the marketing arms for major funders, ensuring that funding gambles more reliably pay off in publications funders can tout to secure more donations and increase their perceived efficiency.

Billionaires don’t like accountability and scrutiny. In the case of media accountability and scrutiny, two of these billionaires — Musk and Zuckerberg — want to lower the number of controls on what is said, tilting power back toward what they have, which is money. They don’t portray gatekeeping by experts and moderation by professional editors as customer service, but as censorship.

These two in particular believe they can behave as nation-states, and speak of their platforms in terms like “public square,” while they keep the gains in private accounts.

While we watch the larger media space, it’s worth remembering that we’ve also allowed the proxy billionaires in our midst to distort our purpose, undermine our editorial and moderation practices, and flood the zone with so much mediocre, bad, and dodgy information that the trust level has fallen across much of the “literature,” whatever that is these days.

Every predatory publisher has as its “origin story” the APC, which a number of billionaire funders pushed. Every preprint on bioRxiv or medRxiv that leads to vaccine skepticism or self-poisoning – or just a general exhaustion of professional attention — has CZI and Zuckerberg funding its existence.

We have our own “sugar daddies.”

The issue of “sugar daddies” in science and publishing is something I’ve discussed at length before, with a scientist at the MIT Media Lab calling out Jeffrey Epstein’s involvement back in 2019. You might recall Epstein has since died/committed suicide, his sidekick faces 65 years in prison (Musk was well-acquainted with her), and the head of the MIT Media Lab was forced to resign after attempting to conceal the fact that he’d taken $800,000 of Epstein’s money.

Is scholarly publishing party to this? Do we get funding from billionaire’s philanthropies, and look the other way? Do we have initiatives (preprint servers, for instance) that only exist because of sugar daddies? Do we let billionaires fund and manage journals?

The problem of “sugar daddy science” is apparent in many places, including how and where results are published. Plan S is an explicit appeal to the power of funders, with its main architect admitting as much in January:

Who holds the key to the solution? . . . the funders, the ones who hold the purse. Because the one who holds the purse can change the system, of course.

Funders aren’t saints. That’s rarely been so clear as it has become this year. In addition, the one who holds the purse can distort the system, ruin competition, and corrupt people and organizations. In a time when income inequality is so extreme, and elitists like those behind Plan S and massive Internet companies increasingly bend the world to their wills, should we actively spurn the sugar daddies?

So much power in so few hands is a problem we need to solve. That includes the proxy billionaires in scholarly publishing who are issuing mandates, demanding concessions, and driving consolidation.

It’s hard to speak truth to power when those in power work hard to hide the truth in a storm of nonsense, all under the guise of “free speech.” Their interpretation of “free” is that they, the billionaires, should be free of accountability, skepticism, or checks on their power and words. And that kind of freedom holds us all down, leaving money as the only power that ends up making a difference.

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