We are living in some remarkably corrupt times — so much so, that it’s easy to lose track, and it seems even easier to inadvertently participate.
For the sake of money, and money alone, we have allowed business leaders, elected officials, Supreme Court judges, technology platforms, funders, faux scholarly publishers, sports leagues, and nation-states to openly exploit, manipulate, and profit from unethical acts and plans.
The most recent example of LIV Golf and the PGA Tour is just one of many in the sports world. (The PGA Tour is, inexplicably, a non-profit, adding another layer of corruption by distorting the idea of a public charity.)
The Saudi’s strategy with LIV Golf and the PGA Tour is being called “sports washing” — creating affinities with popular sports entities in order to wash away reputational issues, which in this case include human rights violations and the murder of a US journalist.
“Soft corruption” in scholarly publishing has been a trend this century so far, with author-pays containing an implicit conflict of interest, the so-called “article economy” favoring quantity over quality (with plenty of negative externalities), and attacks on trusted intermediaries, independent review, and community resources coming from all corners, usually for reasons that are, at base, somewhat corrupt — i.e., selfish, greedy, or spiteful.
Sadly, every story these days seems to end with, “And I got away with it, even with you meddling kids.”
This is not the way a Scooby-Doo episode is supposed to end — with the villain unmasked and caught red-handed, yet marching away with the loot.
And if one villain in the information space gets away with it all the time, that villain is Meta.
In our space, bioRxiv and medRxiv have been participating in two-pronged “soft corruption,” first by overtly undermining independent, community-oriented expert and peer review, and then by taking money repeatedly from CZI, the philanthropic entity funded by Meta stock gains.
It’s key to recall that publishers and journals typically evaluate potential sponsors and even advertisers based on a number of criteria, including a reputation for social harm. Many medical journals decades ago stopped taking ads from cigarette companies, gun manufacturers, and other entities with ties to premature death.
Yet, it’s easy to forget how much of a public health threat Meta and its parts remain. I was recently reminded how corrupt it is to take money from anything associated with Meta via CZI, which is solely run by Meta’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.
It’s especially noxious if your initiative is ostensibly sponsored by institutions of higher education with billions in the bank — institutions devoted to helping young people prepare for their futures, and rich enough to make outside funding of relatively small initiatives like bioRxiv and medRxiv unnecessary.
The damages done by Meta, Facebook, Instagram, and Zuckerberg have been massive, from political polarization (and the 2020 boycott called #stophateforprofit), empowering authoritarians, enabling genocide, censorship of legitimate critics, and — perhaps most pertinent here — increases in depression and death rates among young people who would otherwise be optimistic, hopeful, and supported.
In her book, Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millenials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents — and What They Mean for America’s Future,” Jean M. Twenge, PhD, writes about the generation growing up with social media on their smartphones, with Facebook and Instagram the main apps used during the time of her latest research:
Gen Z teens are markedly more lonely than previous generations at the same age: Beginning around 2012, teens became much more likely to say that they felt lonely and left out. Loneliness among teens had been slowly declining or at least stable since the early 1990s, but after 2012 it suddenly shot upward. . . . The number of teens and young adults with clinical-level depression more than doubled between 2011 and 2021. . . . [Trying to figure out why,] I came across a poll from the Pew Research Center, and things began to fall into place. The poll graphed smartphone ownership in the U.S., which started in 2007 with the introduction of the iPhone and crossed 50% at the end of 2012 into the beginning of 2013. This was also around the time that social media use among teens went from optional to virtually mandatory—in 2009, only about half of teens used social media every day, but by 2012, 3 out of 4 did (in the large Monitoring the Future study). Among all the possibilities, the rise of these new technologies seemed the most likely culprit for the rise in teen depression, self-harm, and suicide.
How bad is it? Twenge quantifies the harm (emphasis mine):
Let that sink in: Twice as many teens were taking their own lives in 2019 than just 12 years before, and three times as many kids in 4th to 9th grade died at their own hands. These are not small increases. If the suicide rate had stayed at its 2007 level through 2019 in the U.S., 2,873 more 10- to 14-year-olds would still be alive, enough to fill all the seats on 20 domestic airplane flights. So would 6,347 more 15- to 19-year-olds (44 planes) and 8,457 more 20- to 24-year-olds (59 planes). That’s a total of 17,677 additional young lives lost, averaging more than 1,300 a year, enough to fill 9 planes. Imagine if 9 airline flights filled with 10- to 24-year-olds crashed every single year, killing everyone on board. Airplanes would not be allowed to fly again until we figured out why so many were crashing. Yet that is how many more additional lives have been lost to suicide among American young people since 2007.
CZI is a tax haven for tens of Zuckerberg’s billions, and an attempt at reputation washing by using a smidge of his earnings for social causes. In this case, let’s call it “science washing” — appearing to support science with money earned by exploiting others.
And this is not the corruption-of-yore kind we could dig up for the Ford Foundation (Ford’s anti-semitism), the Mellon Foundation (Mellon’s failure as Secretary of the Treasury and tax fraud), and others. This is current, active, ongoing corruption happening right under our noses. Yet, despite CZI dollars representing a kind of social media blood money, with thousands of lives lost due to the negative effects of Facebook and Instagram, bioRxiv and medRxiv — and institutions like Yale, BMJ, and Cold Spring Harbor Labs — are willing to dance with the devil.
If they weren’t, they wouldn’t take money from CZI. It’s that simple.
Worse, like all corruption these days, it’s blatant — and tolerated, even celebrated. Press releases about new CZI funding have been issued numerous times, all with happy quotes about support and collaboration.
When you’re helping someone wash their reputation despite their systems contributing to 90 crashed airplanes full of young people annually, you’re aiding and abetting corruption and societal damage. And that’s a shameful part of bioRxiv and medRxiv I have a hard time with.
Corruption, rationalized as inevitable or acceptable by people who simply want to attach themselves to sources of money or watch things burn, is still corruption.