A couple of years ago I had a sensitive tooth, and my dental hygienist recommended that I try Sensodyne or one of the other sensitivity-reducing toothpastes. I bought the generic CVS brand, and it worked.
These toothpastes work because they contain potassium nitrate, which blocks pores in the teeth that allow hot or cold foods to get close to the nerve. This article notes that you might be able to stop using the toothpaste after a while to see if the sensitivity has disappeared. (I should do that as I’ve never stopped using the stuff.)
At any rate, I ran out to the CVS yesterday for a new tube. It turns out that the larger tube of Colgate “Sensitive” toothpaste was a better value per ounce than the house brand, so I bought that. But, like all “sensitive” toothpastes, it carries a big premium in price. The tube below cost, including tax, $7.39. SEVEN DOLLARS AND THIRTY NINE CENTS for six ounces of toothpaste, and that was relatively cheaper than the other “sensitive” brands.
Do you know what that toothpaste works out per pound? $19.70: more than twice as much as I pay for T-bone steak! And if you look at the ingredients (picture below), what you’re paying extra for is one ingredient: 5% potassium nitrate (all toothpastes now have fluoride). Working out the cost of that ingredient, 5% of 6 ounces yields 0.3 oz of the potassium nitrate in the tube. Now being a lab biologist, I’ve ordered sodium potassium nitrate, and believe me, it’s not expensive: you can buy a pound of the stuff for about ten bucks, and you’d better believe that Colgate gets it for far less than that.
Comparing the price to that of regular toothpaste sans potassium nitrate, I calculate that I’m paying about $2 extra for 0.3 oz (8.5 grams) of potassium nitrate, which works out to about $107 per pound of the stuff!
Can someone explain this to me? Are they ripping off the consumers who need the stuff because they have sensitive teeth? Is this another case of Big Pharma taking advantage of people’s needs?
Sensitive toothpaste (and, to be sure, all toothpaste) is one of those items that’s now way overpriced, like sliced white bread at the grocery store, coffee from a barista, and, of course, the ever shrinking large tubs of ice cream. I won’t get into the “shrinking size” scam, but recently I bought cans of black beans at the store, and noticed that what once was a 16 ounce can of black beans had shrunk to 15.5 ounces at one store and 15 ounces at another. (One of those store was “honest” Trader Joe’s.) This sneaky downsizing of products, bit by tiny bit, is just another way of ripping us off, for who is going to notice the loss of half an ounce of beans?
Consumers arise and revolt!
Yes, I know that “supply chain” problems have made food—and nearly everything else—more expensive. But go ahead and kvetch, especially about things that you find grossly overpriced for what you get.
When I was younger—actually, it doesn’t seem that long ago—when one bought a big tub of ice cream, it was a full half gallon. Then the companies started shrinking the sizes of the containers from 64 ounces to 56 ounces, and now the big container of most name brands, like Breyers (the go-to “quality brand” of my youth), are a paltry 48 ounces. That’s a quart and a half, or a full 25% reduction in size from the original.
Why do you think they did that? We’re not stupid: they shrunk the containers but did not commensurately shrink the price, so a given amount of ice cream cost more. It’s capitalism, Jake! Now you could figure this out if you look at the unit price (price per ounce) required to be posted in the grocery stores, but who ever does that? In the end, it was pure duplicity whose effectiveness counted on consumers not paying attention to per-unit prices—or even noticing the size change.
Another trick is that what looks like “ice cream” is, if you scrutinize the label, often described really a “frozen dairy dessert” (this is particularly true of exotic flavors). They are not the same thing. Breyer’s also did this downgrade, as described in the New York Times in 2013 (see picture below):
First, as part of typical trompe l’oeil packaging, the cartons now hold 48 ounces, not the half-gallon’s 64. (The good news is that your hands haven’t become freakishly large; the bad news is that you’re not suddenly much stronger.)
Second, that age-old Breyers boast of “All Natural” has been replaced with “Quality,” which is one of those impressive words that loses impact the more you think about it.
Lastly, not all Breyers is what we once understood the name to mean. A Breyers carton in the store’s freezer might be ice cream, but the Breyers carton right beside it, identical in nearly every way, might be something called “frozen dairy dessert” — which, when translated from the original Orwell, means: not ice cream.
One example from a 2013 article in the New York Times (circle is mine):
More from the NYT:
Remember the old schoolyard song?
We all scream for frozen dairy dessert …
You might ask what the difference is between ice cream and a frozen dairy dessert, and I might answer that it is the same as the difference between a slice of American cheese and a slice of Kraft Singles American Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product. Since this is not helpful, we turn to a spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration, the guardian of “standards of identity,” who explained the distinction in a written response: “Ice cream requires specific levels of milk fat content, nonfat milk solids content, total solids in each gallon of ice cream, and total weight in each gallon of ice cream, while frozen dairy products do not.”In general, ice cream has at least 10 percent dairy fat, and a frozen dairy dessert does not. In my freezer, the Breyers vanilla fudge twirl frozen dairy dessert has the ubiquitous corn syrup, and the Breyers vanilla ice cream does not.
Clearly the change in wording is another bit of duplicity to reduce manufacturing costs. I discovered this when I finally started inspecting the cartons, only to find that what I thought was ice cream was in fact a “frozen dairy dessert.” I was not happy. Here’s how the NYT described the ingredients for Breyers vanilla ice cream vs. vanilla “frozen dairy dessert”.
Years ago I wrote to Breyer’s about the size change (as a curmudgeon, I did that from time to time), and the company wrote back bloviating about how “it’s what the consumers wanted”. Of course that’s bullpucky. It’s capitalism, Jake! I want a full half gallon!
Last night I discovered what might be another trick, though I’m not sure. I had a pint of super-premium ice cream in my freezer, and decided to dip into it. When I looked at the calories, it said in big letters “320”. But I didn’t look close enough, for that was the first nutritional ice cream on the label. But when I looked again, it was “320 calories PER SERVING”. Closer inspection showed that there were supposed to be THREE servings per pint, so the total calories in the small carton was 960—a substantial number of calories. But that information appeared after the “per serving” information.
(In fact, all containers seem to specify a number of servings greater than those consumed by a normal person. Who decides what a “serving” is?)
Now I may be wrong, but shouldn’t the total calories per container appear first on the label? Do they put the “per serving” calories first so you think you’re eating healthier? Because NOBODY I KNOW GETS THREE SERVINGS OUT OF A PINT OF PREMIUM ICE CREAM! I usually get two, but many of us, particularly when we need comfort, eat the whole damn pint.
Could it be that what I thought was a favor to the consumer (it isn’t; this is mandated by law) was really a way to make you think what you’re eating is less calorie-laden than it is? And that could result in your buying the ice cream when you wouldn’t if you really knew how many calories it had.
That is for Solomon to decide, but one thing’s for sure: the size reduction (not limited to ice cream, as the NYT mentions) is the result of pure greed. And it’s even more nefarious because it is hidden. You’ll never see on the label: “NEW SMALLER SIZE”.
So we have three potential tricks involving carton size, ingredients, and unrealistic serving sizes.
Oh, and I just remembered Steve Gould’s old Natural History article, “Phyletic size decrease in Hershey bars,” one of his funnier essays (still online), in which he describes the shrinkage in Hershey bars over time, always ultimately accompanied by an increase in the price per ounce. Here’s the graph Gould showed, putting it in an evolutionary context. Note that the article describes how Hershey’s tried to bribe Gould by offering him a free ten pounds of chocolate (they didn’t come through after his piece appeared!).
I haven’t bought a Hershey Bar in years, but I bet it’s a lot more than 25¢ now. And here’s one of his conclusions—classic Gould:
So, your lessons are these:
If you’re counting calories, always look at the “per portion” count as well to see if the portion size is realistic. Will you really consume only one potion?
If you’re out to buy ice cream, look at the carton to see if you’re getting “frozen dairy dessert” instead. Maybe you want this ersatz ice cream, but I don’t.
One of the world’s great instances of immorality—indeed, a case of cultural genocide—is the attempt of the Chinese to persecute and, indeed, wipe out the Uyghur Muslim minority, most of whom live in the Xingiang Autonomous Region in the northwestern part of the the People’s Republic of China—the area in red below:
Another form of persecution of the Uyghur is the use of the captive population by the Chinese as forced labor to make products or components of products that find their way to America and other Western markets. Companies like Coca-Cola and Nike, for example, have been accused of using materials or products (e.g., entire shoes) made by forced labor (it’s not clear whether the workers get any remuneration, but they’re working against their will, and often doing so in these camps, always under surveillance).
Other companies implicated, according to the recent (Nov. 29) New York Times article and the Business Insider articles below (click on screenshost), include Adidas, Amazon, Apple, BMW, Costco, Calvin Klein, Campbell Soups (some of the forced labor is involved in growing food), H&M, Patagonia, and Tommy Hilfinger. The NYT also reports that there are 82 foreign companies “that potentially benefited, directly or indirectly, from abusive labor transfer programs tied to Xinjiang.”
Now many of these companies, when asked to provide statements, deny that they are complicit in the use of slave labor, and assert that their own protocols and investigations have exculpated them. (Some give no comment.) But, as Business Insider reports, denials are not convincing in light of the obstructions that China places against independent inspection and auditing:
Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola have over the years been accused by human rights groups of a variety of labor abuses and worker exploitation, particularly in China. They have also made various pledges and taken some steps to address that criticism.
Monitoring that, however, has become difficult. Five major auditing groups hired by Western firms told The Wall Street Journal in September that they are no longer carrying out supply chain inspections in China because restrictions imposed by government officials have made it too difficult to effectively and independently evaluate working conditions in the country.
And the NYT concurs:
. . . for many companies, fully investigating and eliminating any potential ties to forced labor there has been difficult, given the opacity of Chinese supply chains and the limited access of auditors to a region where the Chinese government tightly restricts people’s movements.
In response to these reports, and in a very rare show of bipartisan support, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a new bill, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (see the bill here), whose provisions include these (from Wikipedia):
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act would make it U.S. policy to assume (a “rebuttable presumption”) that all goods manufactured in Xinjiang are made with forced labor, unless the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection certifies that certain goods are known to not have been made with forced labor. The bill also calls for the President of the United States to impose sanctions on “any foreign person who ‘knowingly engages'” in forced labor using minority Muslims. The bill would further require firms to disclose their dealings with Xinjiang. A list of Chinese companies that have relied on forced labor would be compiled.
In light of Chinese obstructions against investigations, it seems reasonable to presume that slave labor has been used in Xinjiang-origin products, and for companies to either stop importation of products from the region, or conduct genuine, independent, and non-obstructed audits to certify that slave labor has not been used. In fact, the bill passed the House by a lopsided vote of 406-3 (the “nay” votes were Justin Amash, Libertarian-Mich; Warren Davidson, R-Ohio; and Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky), with the Senate predicted to pass it as well. If it passes both houses of Congress, either Trump or Biden could sign it into law, and it looks like there’s enough votes that Congress could override a potential Trump veto (Biden won’t veto it).
However, the three stories below, also including one from the Washington Post, show that some U.S. companies have lobbied against this bill. While Nike denies the lobbying, asserting that it merely had “constructive discussions” with congressional staff (I don’t believe them), I am puzzled about why there would be any lobbying if the companies aren’t depending on forced labor. You might respond that they aren’t doing that, but that companies don’t want to go through an onerous and expensive process to prove it. But can’t they farm out the labor to places where it’s not forced and used as a form of persecution? Granted, it may be a tad more expensive, but I doubt Americans wouldn’t pay a bit more for assurance that slave labor isn’t being used.
From the New York Times:
From Business Insider:
From the Washington Post:
This is a serious charge, especially given the political climate in the U.S. today, formed in part by a justified repugnance towards slavery. Isn’t it possible for these companies to simply use non-forced Chinese labor from areas other than Xinjiang? What heartens me is that the House and Senate can work in a bipartisan way to effect positive change, even if this bill is a no-brainer.
The New York Times reports the latest instance of unhinged deplatforming (click on screenshot):
Adolph Reed, Jr., a black antiracist and Marxist who has taught at four universities (now emeritus at Penn) was scheduled to give a talk in May to New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Unfortunately for him, it was on one of his areas of expertise: the conflict between emphasizing race versus emphasizing class in striving for social justice. His topic: how the Left has, in his view, unproductively concentrated on the disproportionate effect of the coronavirus on blacks, which he sees as unnecessarily dividing those blacks from those whites who both belong to the real underclass: the poor. He sees this kind of identity politics as needlessly fracturing people who should be working together to assure equity. (To show how Left Reed is, he’s criticized both Obama and Clinton, the former as a man espousing “vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics.”)
The mob descended:
To let him talk, the organization’s Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus stated, was “reactionary, class reductionist and at best, tone deaf.”
“We cannot be afraid to discuss race and racism because it could get mishandled by racists,” the caucus stated. “That’s cowardly and cedes power to the racial capitalists.”
That last phrase baffled me a bit, but it appears to mean that because Reed was emphasizing class over race, he was “afraid to discuss race and racism”, and that racists could say, “See, a black man thinks we’re talking too much about race.”
After further pushback, Reed and the DSA decided to cancel the virtual talk. (Yes, a virtual talk!). Among those who criticized the cancellation was, to my surprise, Cornel West, who describes himself as a “non-Marxist socialist” and is well known for his antiracism. As the NYT says:
“God have mercy, Adolph is the greatest democratic theorist of his generation,” said Cornel West, a Harvard professor of philosophy and a Socialist. “He has taken some very unpopular stands on identity politics, but he has a track record of a half-century. If you give up discussion, your movement moves toward narrowness.”
I haven’t much followed the race vs. class conflict, but of course if you are a Marxist and concentrate more on class, seeing a racial conflict as inimical to your goals, you’re going to be called a racist. That’s especially true because one can argue that poor blacks are more oppressed than poor whites, though I couldn’t argue that all blacks are on average more disadvantaged than poor whites. But surely there’s a discussion to be had on this issue, and I know my Chicago colleague Brian Leiter comes down on the side of emphasizing class. Others agree:
A contrary view [to emphasizing race] is offered by Professor Reed and some prominent scholars and activists, many of whom are Black. They see the current emphasis in the culture on race-based politics as a dead-end. They include Dr. West; the historians Barbara Fields of Columbia University and Toure Reed — Adolph’s son — of Illinois State; and Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of Jacobin, a Socialist magazine.
They readily accept the brute reality of America’s racial history and of racism’s toll. They argue, however, that the problems now bedeviling America — such as wealth inequality, police brutality and mass incarceration — affect Black and brown Americans, but also large numbers of working class and poor white Americans.
The most powerful progressive movements, they say, take root in the fight for universal programs. That was true of the laws that empowered labor organizing and established mass jobs programs during the New Deal, and it’s true of the current struggles for free public college tuition, a higher minimum wage, reworked police forces and single-payer health care.
Those programs would disproportionately help Black, Latino and Native American people, who on average have less family wealth and suffer ill health at rates exceeding that of white Americans, Professor Reed and his allies argue. To fixate on race risks dividing a potentially powerful coalition and playing into the hands of conservatives.
Regardless of where you come down on this debate, I vehemently object to the cancellation of a scheduled talk because it was seen as ideologically impure. That is true “cancel culture”, and all it does is stifle discussion. Since “prominent scholars and activists, many of whom are Black,” take Reed’s side, it’s surely worth hearing what they have to say. For example:
Professor Reed and his compatriots believe the left too often ensnares itself in battles over racial symbols, from statues to language, rather than keeping its eye on fundamental economic change.
“If I said to you, ‘You’re laid off, but we’ve managed to rename Yale to the name of another white person’, you would look at me like I’m crazy,” said Mr. Sunkara, the editor of Jacobin.
That second sentence is a zinger, and does make a point. (One could also have said, “we’ve managed to change the name of a bird.”) There was one other money quote, and Brian Leiter also picked it up in his short blog post on this deplatforming:
[Reed]finds a certain humor in being attacked over race.
“I’ve never led with my biography, as that’s become an authenticity-claiming gesture,” he said. “But when my opponents say that I don’t accept that racism is real, I think to myself, ‘OK, we’ve arrived at a strange place.’”
It is a strange place, and I wonder if I’ll live long enough to see us go to a better place.
Today is Saturday, which is supposed to be my day off, and therefore there will be little or no braining. Instead, let’s see what Gwynnie is up to. (Does anybody like her? Some people must, as she’s gotten rich off her products and surely has a lot of fans).
I’m not one of those fans, as when I see her she always strikes me as insincere, and, more important, she’s now spending her life peddling woo instead of acting, an area where she really does have talent. She is flogging two new products. One is a pack of “Inner Compass Cards”, which come in decks of 49 cards and costs $55: more than a dollar a card. (Let it not be said that her company, Goop prices things fairly.) Click on the screenshot:
Now they’re called “oracle cards”, but that isn’t quite the case. But to see what they really are, you have to read an article in Jezebel by Hazel Cillis, who got a pack (funded by Jezebel), examined them—and used them. Click on the screenshot to read Hazel’s take (note the heading!):
What the cards apparently do is give you a self-helpy thought that will supposedly guide you toward daily fulfillment. Some quotes:
There are 49 cards to a pack of Inner Compass cards, each with a vague nugget of wisdom. “This card is an invitation to drop anchor. Intuitively you feel that something is not quite right, but you are too busy to act upon it,” read the Anchor card’s description. “Now is the time to slow down and take a long, good look around.”The cards are intended, the website reads, to “propose questions that awaken opportunities that have been waiting for you.” So I decided to try and “awaken the opportunities inside me” by offloading my decisions to the cards for a day.
So what do these dollar-apiece cards say?
The directions are basically, “every day shuffle the deck with focus and intention, pick one or more cards instinctively, and your intuition will guide you toward a new pattern of belief and positivity,” the website reads. You can’t pick a wrong card. In the morning I shuffled the deck and pulled a card: The Healer. I flipped through the little book of explanations to find mine. “You are currently going through a process of deep healing,” it began. I was told to shed “everything that distracted me,” to “open myself to change,” to “rise out of the mud like a lotus flower with increased empathy, understanding, and wisdom.” This was redundant, considering that among the Jezebel staff it’s already widely known that I’m a lotus flower who has already risen out of the mud with an increased empathy, understanding, and wisdom. Was I comforted by this apt assessment? Not really.
They’re more like horoscopes than Chinese fortune-cookie slips, but of course they’re all bullshit. As Cillis says,
The thing that sets Inner Compass cards apart from a Tarot deck, is that the latter anticipates the future. Inner Compass cards do something much lazier: they don’t predict, they just give a pep talk. They’re billed as “oracle cards,” a category that can become whatever you want it to be, as long as you’re thinking about “your intentions” while you pick a card. That looseness also means that many of them feel mind-numbingly repetitive. Later, before lunch, I pulled “New Chapter.” I was told to “not stay stuck in my own resistance,” to “be confident,” and to “leap towards the unknown.”
What kind of people would buy these? I suppose the same people who buy self-help books, but these cards cost a lot more than a book and proffer a lot less advice. The advice seems New-Agey, though, which may appeal to Paltrow’s target audience. And how much profit does Goop make off of what is, in effect, a simple deck of cards? Surely at least 75%!
At any rate, Cillis uses them as a kind of fun game, giving them to her friends to interpret them (even I can’t help reading my horoscope, even though I know it’s bogus!). But there are cheaper ways to have fun, and more adult ways to figure out your life. Cillis concludes:
The cards didn’t ground me, nor did I feel like, even with sustained practice and shuffling each day, they’d enlighten me. But having my friends pull them, as if they actually meant something, was cute and admittedly fun. “By exploring the different themes and patterns, you will discover the world as your playground,” the Inner Compass told me. Or maybe the world is a 6th grade slumber party?
And get ready for the “Goop Lab” (I truly object to this nonsense being characterized as a “lab”), premiering soon on Netflix, and exploring the boundaries of woo. Have a look at the trailer below. Here’s the YouTube sell:
The goop lab with Gwyneth Paltrow is a six-episode series, guiding the deeply inquisitive viewer in an exploration of boundary-pushing wellness topics, including: psychedelics, cold therapy, female pleasure, anti-aging, energy healing and psychics. The goop lab launches on Netflix January 24, 2020.
Orgasms! Facial acupuncture! Vaginal self-examination! Energy healing! Psychics! Cold therapy! It’s the whole gamut of New Age woo.
As Gwynnie says in the video: “We’re here one time, one life; how can we really milk the shit out of this?” I think she’s figured that out!
Speaking of vaginas, here’s the very latest Goop product, which is already eliciting mockery and revulsion on the Internet. (Click on the screenshot.)
Here’s the description, and if you go to the site you’ll see that, even at $75 a pop, it’s sold out:
Per the product description, the item — made by artisanal fragrance brand Heretic — “started as a joke” between perfumer Douglas Little and Paltrow while they were collaborating on a fragrance together. The two were testing scents when the Politician star blurted out, “Uhhh..this smells like a vagina,” the website said.
While the two didn’t end up bottling the “funny, gorgeous, sexy, and beautifully unexpected scent” into a perfume, they did think it would be “perfect as a candle,” the description read.
According to Goop, the brand did a “test run” for the candle during the In Goop Health summit and “it sold out within hours.”
I, for one, have no intention of doing the field work to see if the description is accurate, but it’s amazing that so many people are willing to fork out $75 for an unexpectedly vagina-smelling candle. As P. T. Barnum supposedly said. . .
I don’t have anything against capitalism, though I like some socialism mixed in with it, but, by god, this invention is capitalism gone awry. It’s reported by Wired UK, and you can see it by clicking on the screenshot:
We all appreciate the little things in life, and that includes spending five minutes on the toilet scrawling through Twitter on company time. But those days may be at risk with the StandardToilet, a seat that claims to drastically reduce toilet time.
Approved by the British Toilet Association (BTA), a members organisation that campaigns for better toilet facilities, the StandardToilet sits at a downward angle of 13 degrees. After around five minutes of sitting, this will cause strain on the legs, similar to a low level squat thrust, but “not enough to cause health issues,” reassures Mahabir Gill, founder of StandardToilet. “Anything higher than that would cause wider problems. Thirteen degrees is not too inconvenient, but you’d soon want to get off the seat quite quickly.”
It was inspired by a series of annoyances. As a consulting engineer for 40 years, Gill sometimes discover workers asleep on the toilet, and in his free time, was increasingly annoyed by queues for public toilets. The final straw came while he was shopping in a department store the morning after a particularly heavy night out, and in desperate need for a toilet, could only find locked cubicles. Thus, the idea for the StandardToilet was born.
Here, as shown by CBS News, is the nefarious new invention: the sloping toilet (the “StandardToilet” label is the company that makes it). To wit:
Well, by god, this is too damn much! There is something petty and nasty about installing sloping toilets so that your workers get uncomfortable after five minutes on the throne. But of course the company has a “good” reason:
However, the toilet isn’t entirely about curtailing bathroom breaks. The 13% downward slope of the toilet has health benefits, the company told CBS MoneyWatch. In its email, the company said the design “helps in reduction of risk in swollen hemorrhoids.”
What an altruistic reason: the company is concerned with its employees’ hemorrhoids!
If you’re going to go this route, why not just install an ejecting toilet seat that flings the user off after five minutes, and warn them of that? (If you want to be helpful, provide a timer.) After all, some people can endure leg pain better than others and will be prone to stay on the throne.
There’s not much news today except for what you already know: Trump is imposing ridiculous tariffs on China, which will, contrary to his stupid claim, cost U.S. citizens more. Tariffs are never a good idea. And Doris Day died. The big news from Chicago is that all ten of my ducklings are still alive and thriving, which goes a long way toward counteracting the bad news.
In the absence of news, here’s a personal rant, which I’ve made before. Commercial scientific publishers like Springer and Elsevier are well known for gouging both scientists and university libraries by charging huge amounts for subscriptions to journals, for “publication charges” (what you pay when you publish a paper in their journals), and for online reprints. I recently discovered, for instance, that the University of Chicago Library, which is not impecunious and is well stocked with journals, can’t afford to carry Nature Ecology & Evolution, an important journal in my field. That’s because its publisher, like all Nature journals, is Springer, and is charging more money for the journal than our library can afford. (This is not a predatory journal or an obscure one; it’s one I would read if I had access.)
As I wrote in 2016, the profit margins of commercial science publishers are obscene. My beef at that time, which still holds, was this:
I’ve long complained about the bloated profits of commercial scientific publishers, which can be as high as 40%. That’s obscene if you realize that other companies which actually make a product make far less money, that the scientific publishers get that money by not only charging authors to publish there, but having their scientific papers refereed and improved by reviewers who are paid nothing. Those reviewers—and I’ve done plenty of gratis reviewing for journals like Nature and Current Biology, as well as for journals issued by less greedy publishers—are done out of a sense of “public service”. Profit-hungry journals like to play on our sense of duty and public service, all the while raking in huge profits by using scientists to do the journal’s job for free. And remember that these journals charge people for access to papers that are, by and large, funded by government grants—by the taxpayer. It’s reprehensible that the public who funds such research is denied access to the results of that research. (Some funding organizations, however, allow journals to charge for access for only one year. But even that is too much.) Commercial publishing of taxpayer-funded research is a travesty unless the profits, beyond those needed to pay salaries and run the company, are plowed back into more science.
But young scientists, who need to make their reputations by publishing in well-known journals like Cell and Nature, have no choice, for their hiring, tenure, and promotion often depend on what journals accept their papers. Sadly, many of the “high quality” journals are put out by greedy publishers. And it’s not just young scientists, either: organizations that hand out grants often look at where you’ve published your papers before deciding whether to give you further funds.
I’ve complained about this before, especially about the company Elsevier, one of the greediest scientific publishers around (see here). Eventually I, and 16,383 other scientists (the number is growing), pledged to do no more work for Elsevier until they adopted reasonable business practice instead of gouging scientists. Even editors have fought back: as I reported last November, “all six editors and 31 editorial board members of Lingua, a highly reputed linguistics journal that has the misfortune to be published by Elsevier, have resigned in protest of high library and bundling fees and of Elsevier’s refusal to convert the journal to open access.”
Companies like Springer and Elsevier are, unlike society journals or university-published journals, purely capitalistic: their aim is not to disseminate science, but to make money. And they do. Here are the profits I reported in the post above; note that I can’t be sure that these figures hold now, nor that they were absolutely accurate in 2016. But this is what I had:
Want to know the obscene level of profits these companies make? From Sauropod Vertebrata Picture of the Week, we have a listing of the profits of well known technical scientific publishers. These are from 2012 and represent profits as a percentage of revenue:
Here’s a comparison of profits from various companies, including nonscientific ones, listed on Alex Holcombe’s blog in 2013; they’re compared to profits of other companies. [JAC: I believe these are profits as a percentage of revenues.]
As pointed out in the article I’ll shortly summarize, Elsevier made a profit of $1.13 billion dollars in 2014—1.3 times the entire annual budget of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
One way that companies like Springer fatten their purses is by getting scientists to do reviewing for them, and then paying them nothing or almost nothing. What this means, in effect, is that scientists are working as no-wage slaves so that commercial scientific publishers can make more money. Here’s an email I got yesterday from an editor at Springer (names changed to protect the capitalists):
From:[NAME REDACTED] Sent: Monday, May 13, 2019 2:50 PM To: Jerry Coyne Subject: Population Genetics-Historical Fiction
Dear Prof Coyne,
Greetings from New York. Please allow me to introduce myself as an editor in Life Sciences at Springer. As you may know, Springer is an international publisher of scholarly research and reference works in a variety of academic disciplines.
We have recently received a book proposal entitled [TITLE AND DESCRIPTION OF BOOK REDACTED]. Given your academic interest in this field, I wonder if you are available to review this unique project for scope and suitability for publication (2 pages plus sample chapters). I am delighted to offer any ebook of your choice from Springer (valued at $250 or less) as a token of my gratitude. In the event that you are unable to review for us, please feel free to suggest a colleague who might be a suitable alternative.
I look forward to hearing from you, and thank you in advance for your time and consideration.
With best wishes, [Name REDACTED]
Note what they’re offering. In return for several hours of work (I’d have to review a short book proposal but also “sample chapters”, which are long and take time), I get an ebook of my choice. Now what does that cost Springer? Nothing! Once an ebook is produced, handing out one free copy to a reviewer has a marginal cost of zero. (And I don’t even read books online.) In other words, they’re asking me to put in several hours of work in return for bupkes. Nobody else who invested so much time in acquiring scientific expertise would be expected to work for nothing. But journals like this one do, counting on our “sense of duty as scientists.” (Some companies do offer real books, but often of a value less than that of a reviewer’s time, especially given that the cost of a book to a publisher is about half what you’d pay in a bookstore or online.)
Well, I will and do exercise a sense of duty for journals that aren’t run for profit, but not for companies like Springer. I wrote them this reply:
Sorry, but the offer of an e-book, which costs you virtually nothing, is hardly reasonable payment for what would be at the minimum several hours of work on my part. I should make at least as much as a plumber, don’t you think?
And I don’t have an e-reader.
I consider such offers pure exploitation of academics so that your already obscenely large profits (34% of revenue) can become even larger. When you offer a decent stipend instead of e-books, then maybe you’ll get more takers.
I’ll add that your journals cost so much that our library at the University of Chicago cannot even afford to take Nature Ecology & Evolution, which is a journal right in my area.
I can see why you make so much profit: you pay book reviewers virtually nothing.
It’s bad enough that the White Sox baseball stadium, once Comiskey Park, then U.S. Cellular Field, is now called “Guaranteed Rate Field” after a mortgage company paid big bucks to rename it. Yes, baseball franchises are greedy, and few major league ballparks don’t bear the names of companies, but really—Guaranteed Rate Field? It sticks in the craw.
But now my own school, The University of Chicago, has renamed an entire department—our renowned Department of Economics—after being given a $125 million donation. This was announced on Leiter Reports (Brian Leiter is a professor at the University of Chicago Law School), and was confirmed in an announcement by the University.
Now it’s true that the $125 million given to the U of C by the The Kenneth C. Griffin Charitable Fund wasn’t just to change the name: most of the dosh, it seems, will go to fund scholarships and research in economics. But you’d better believe that the department isn’t being renamed just out of gratitude for the money. Somebody made a deal to do this:
In recognition of this gift, the Economics Department will be renamed the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics.
On his website, Leiter asks “whether anyone can think of a similar case where an academic department–not a business school, or a law school, or a medical school–sold naming rights to the department?” Several people give examples, so we’re not unique. Still, we’re the University of Chicago, a school I’m proud to be associated with, and I don’t at all like department names to be sold off like so much chattel. Can you imagine what would happen if this continues? Will my own department be renamed The Monsanto Department of Ecology and Evolution? And can you imagine the Preparation H Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy?
Reader Alexander sent a link to an article in Publisher’s Weekly (PW), which Wikipedia describes as “an American weekly trade news magazine targeted at publishers, librarians, booksellers and literary agents. Published continuously since 1872, it has carried the tagline, “The International News Magazine of Book Publishing and Bookselling”. With 51 issues a year, the emphasis today is on book reviews.”
The report on that site is about the retail chain Family Christian Stores, formerly America’s largest chain of stores purveying Christian merchandise (books, jewelry, movies, geegaws and the like) I say “formerly” because the chain is closing. (You can read the CEO’s official announcement here, signed “In His Service”.) After declaring bankruptcy in 2015, the chain is shutting down: lock, stock, and barrel. And it’s no small chain, either, as it has 240 stores in 36 states. As PW reports:
According to various sources, a board meeting was held at FCS’s Grand Rapids, Mich., headquarters on Wednesday afternoon to determine whether the beleaguered retailer would close or finance another year. To continue, sources said, board members said that they needed to see a path to profitability by 2018.
. . . “We prepared for this,” said Jonathan Merkh, v-p and publisher at Howard Books. The planning, though, doesn’t take away the sting. “Financially, it may not affect the industry in the short run, but it will in the long run. There are 240 less stores selling books.”
Mark D. Taylor, chairman and CEO of Tyndale House Publishers, told PW that it will be hard to lose a company which has been a cornerstone of the segment for so long. “The entire Christian community—indeed the entire nation—will be poorer as a result of this pending closure,” he said.
The Christian community may be the poorer, but I think the nation will be the richer, for this not on facilitates the secularization of the U.S., but is a strong sign of that secularization. People just don’t want to buy Christian stuff any more, and that coincides with the rise of the “nones”: those Americans who don’t identify with an established church. While people like Rodney Stark keep claiming that Christianity is doing better than ever, they’re like the captain of a ship proclaiming how sound the vessel is as it’s going down
By the way, here’s PW’s list of subject editors. It’s supposed to deal with the entire publishing industry, but notice that there are three religion editors and no science editors! We still have a way to go.
SENIOR NEWS EDITOR
ASSISTANT NEWS EDITOR
Diane Roback, Children’s Book Editor
John A. Sellers, Children’s Reviews Editor
Emma Kantor, Associate Editor
Matia Burnett, Assistant Editor
Please contact Matia Burnett for queries concerning review submissions of children’s books.
Seth Satterlee, Religion Reviews Editor
DEPUTY REVIEWS EDITOR
SENIOR REVIEWS EDITORS