The Failure of Scientific Journals: the Failure of Science
The Failure of Scientific Journals: the Failure of Science





Some characteristics of science are not bugs, they are features

Biophysical Economics and Sustainability” is a scientific journal edited by Springer. It is a classic case of a good idea that, sadly, didn’t work. I was involved with this journal from the beginning, in 2016, but I formally resigned from the editorial board this December. Note that you can still find my name on the front page of the Web site of the Journal. On many things, Springer is as reactive as a beached whale. Why did the journal fail? First of all, let me say that I do not blame my colleagues of the editorial board. Not at all, they are all good scientists who did their best. But failure was unavoidable given the conditions in which the journal operated. But let me tell the story from the beginning. 

The journal was born in 2016 with the name “Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality” (BERQ). Now it has a slightly different name, but it is the same journal and we still call it “BERQ”. It was the brainchild of Charles W. Hall and David Packer. About Charlie Hall, you may have heard of him, he was the developer of the fundamental concept of EROI (energy return on energy invested). Dave Packer was a senior editor at Springer, and he understood the importance of these concepts so much that he proposed a new journal dedicated to that concept. Charlie is now retired, but still very active in research. Dave also retired, he is a little less active, but still doing good work.

The idea of BERQ was to create a high-quality journal that could offer a publishing outlet in the field called “biophysical economics,” or also “econophysics.” You may have heard about this field: it is an approach to economics based on the same models used in biology. It was, and it remains, a promising field. It goes to the basic elements of what an economic system is: it transforms resources into products, and then into waste. The main difference with traditional economics is that econophysics is focused on real-world entities, things that can be measured: energy, mass, materials, and the like. In contrast, economics is heavily focused on money and prices and, often, it loses contact with reality. 

For instance, it is often said in the field of the economics of natural resources that “prices create resources.” The idea is that when a non-renewable resource becomes scarce, prices become higher, making it possible to extract resources that were not profitable before. It is a magic trick supposed to create something out of nothing, or, better said, from numbers stored in a computer memory, which is what money is. No need to say that it doesn’t work in the real world. And it doesn’t work in the biophysical approach, either. The concept of EROI (Energy Return for Energy Invested) is deeply embedded in the concept of econophysics. It tells you what’s possible to do with energy technologies, and what’s not possible. But it just does not exist in traditional economics: it is ignored and, as a consequence, plenty of resources are wasted in non-viable energy technologies, biofuels for instance. 

Many scientists think that it is time to replace the obsolete approach of traditional economics with the more rigorous one of biophysical economics. But it is just not happening. The origins of biophysical economics go back to the famous report to the Club of Rome titled “The Limits to Growth,” published in 1972 (even though the term “biophysical economics” was not used. From then on, the field has been making some gains, but it never really lifted off. If you look at the trends of the number of publications in scientific journals on databases such as “Scopus”, you see that growth has stalled during the past 10 years or so, and now it is going down. Below, the data for “Biophysical Economics.” Not only growth stopped about 10 years ago, but the number of published studies remains extremely small in comparison to the wide field of economics.  

Could a small group of dedicated people change this situation? We did our best with “BERQ” but, honestly, the results were disappointing. The journal is still alive but if you peruse the list of publications, you see that it attracted mostly second or third-tier level publications. It never really had an impact on the field it was supposed to innovate. 

I think the main problem with BERQ was the cost of publication. If you want to have your article published in an “open access” format in the journal you have to pay $3,390. It is a lot of money for the strained budget of a research scientist. One consequence was that I found myself as the editor of a journal in which I could not afford to publish (one of the reasons why I resigned). Another was that most people publish on BERQ in the “restricted” format which costs them nothing, but costs about $40 for readers to access. And that guarantees that nobody will read those articles. No wonder the journal does not attract high-quality papers. If people have a paper they care about and that they want others to read, they publish it open-access on journals that charge a lower fee. 
Why these high prices that are guaranteed to throttle to death the flow of good papers? As they say, it is not a bug, it is a feature. You probably know that “science” is supposed to be formed of a bunch of disinterested truth-seekers who spend their life investigating Nature and her ways. It is not such a bad definition if you apply it to what science was. At the time of the great pioneers of science, say, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and many others, science was something that could change the way we perceived the universe with the work of individuals whose main tool was a pencil they used to write sentences and formulas on paper. Up to the times of Einstein, Bohr, Planck, and others, about one century ago, that was what science was. People working with pencil and paper who, alone, could create scientific revolutions. 
Although the scientists of old worked often alone, they were part of a network of people who continuously communicated with each other and shared ideas and methods. Newton understood this point perfectly well when he said that his successes were due to the fact that he was standing “on the shoulder of giants.” Science was a peculiar kind of organization: it had no leaders, no governing bodies, no “kings” and no “popes.” Even though, of course, some scientists had much more prestige than others, it was a basically egalitarian organization. 
Allow me to use the term “holobiont” to describe the traditional organization of science. A holobiont is a complex system that arises by self-organizing itself on the basis of local interactions among the members. The term is used mostly in biology, but I argue that the definition can be extended to human social systems, science is one example. Up to recent times, science has been exactly fitting the definition of holobiont: it was a loose network of independent people. One characteristic of holobionts as networks is that they can evolve and change. It is never easy for human beings to change their views, but science, as a whole, could. Of course, it normally took the disappearance of an older generation of scientists for science to adopt new paradigms but, in general, it worked. Just think how quantum mechanics could radically change the very basis of how we understood the nature of matter, back around the first decades of the 20th century. And that radical change took just a few decades to be globally accepted. 
What I am proposing is that, over the years, science has been undergoing a process of “hierarchization” that has turned it into a much more rigid structure than the loose holobiont it used to be. Hierarchical structure are rigid.  They change only if the central vertex changes. And the central vertex resists change. So the whole structure refuses to change, until the change sweeps it away, whole. Did you hear about the “Seneca Effect”? Yes, this is the way it works. 
What turned science from a relatively free organization into a frozen block of truths that cannot be discussed? (do you remember Anthony Fauci’s “I am Science”?). It was obtained by the classic combination of the carrot and the stick. The carrot is the research funding: right now, you can obtain funds for your research only if you follow extremely detailed rules provided by the funders — private industries or state agencies. They are not normally interested in innovation, only to prove that certain devices or concoction work. In fact, a lot of research is not even supposed to prove that; only that there is some hope that certain things will work one day if more money is poured into doing the same thing more intensely. This is why immense efforts are spent researching for solutions for the wrong problems (for instance creating a “hydrogen economy”). The search for funds is competitive and if you do not comply with the rules you are shut off and marginalized. And that’s guaranteed if you ever try to do the forbidden thing, which is to innovate something.  
The other element of the hierarchization of science has to do with the stick, in this case provided by science publishers. Of course, publishers do not select what is to be published or not. The task is left completely to scientists. Nevertheless, a rigid hierarchy emerges from the mechanism of scientific publications as it is today. First, because it is so expensive: it ensures that only those scientists who can control large research grants can publish in the best scientific journals (or are considered the best). That, in turn, ensures that they gain more prestige, and can access more grants. The others are forced to publish in second or third-rank journals and are marginalized, economically unable to compete (*). To say nothing about the plain and simple corruption of scientists to have them support the results that the powers that be want to be supported. Innovative work simply has no possibility to move out of the swamp where it is confined, so it cannot influence the top layer of scientific research. (**)
So, is science becoming useless? Maybe yes, given the situation. Science has become a giant machine dedicated mostly to grinding pure air. There is little or nothing that can be done to reform these fossilized structures from the inside. Every attempt to change something is met with a rearranging of the network in such a way as to maintain its earlier structure. It is what happened to BERQ, a nice try but it couldn’t have worked. So, the only way to get rid of an obsolete hierarchical structure is to let it crash down, and then replace it with a new one. It is the mechanism that generates the Seneca Collapse. 
It happens, normally, as the result of an external perturbation that makes it impossible for the whole network to maintain the links that keep it together. So, the powers that be could simply decide that they don’t need science anymore and simply cut financing to it.  A starved holobiont, typically, is a dead holobiont, so it would be the end of science as we know it, but it is difficult to say what can arise in its place. 
For a while, many of us thought we could find the truth in a nearly-deified form of “science,” only to discover that all-too-human scientists had corrupted the idea, turning it into a giant circus where funny-looking beasts run and run in a circle, but arrive nowhere. We remain facing Pilate’s question: Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια? What is truth? Maybe one day we’ll know. 


(*) Just to give you some idea of how impermeable the hierarchy of science can be, here is an example. In 2015, two Turkish physicists, Ibrahim Semiz and Salim Ogur published a paper where they explored the possibility of a Dyson sphere built around a white dwarf star. In 2022, B. Zuckerman, of the University of California LA, published a paper on the same subject: Dyson Spheres around white dwarves. It was not plagiarism, because the two papers approach the subject in different ways, but it is remarkable how Zuckerman did not cite the two Turkish physicists, even though he had published it in the same paper repository. You can also see the different resonance of the two studies: the paper coming from California was discussed in the mainstream press, while the Turkish one was ignored. It is the hierarchical structure of science at work. Provincial scientists are marginalized. 


(**) Recently, a new trend has been developing to eliminate new ideas in science. It is the classic censorship, in this case taking the shape of the “paper retraction” mechanism. So far, it has been rarely used, but it is becoming popular, as you can see on the “retraction watch” site. As a subset of the ordinary “fact checkers” who censor social media, a group of specialized fact-checkers has appeared, engaging in finding mistakes in published papers, then pressing the editors to retract them. In principle, it is not a bad idea to get rid of those bad papers that survive the often sloppy reviewing mechanism of scientific journals. In practice, it has a great potential for direct censorship of incorrect results. During the Covid crisis, hundreds of papers on the subject were retracted. No doubt that many were bad papers that deserved retraction, but I could tell you stories about a few that were retracted simply for ideological reasons. 

Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect Read More



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