The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Failure of Scientific Journals: the Failure of Science


Scientific, "peer-reviewed" journals are rapidly becoming a major stumbling block to scientific innovation. Here, I tell the story of one of these journals that I myself helped create. From this, I argue that the loose network that science used to be (an excellent example of a "social holobiont") has degenerated into a rigid, hierarchical structure that allows no changes and no innovations. And of what use is science if it doesn't innovate anymore?

"Biophysical Economics and Sustainability" is a scientific journal I helped create back in 2016. I still think it was a good idea, but it didn't work as expected. So, I resigned from my position as journal editor this December (1). But let me tell the story from the beginning. 

The journal was the brainchild of Charles W. Hall and David Packer. About Charlie Hall, he was the developer of the fundamental concept of EROI (energy return on energy invested). Dave Packer was a senior editor at Springer (now retired). The idea was to create a high-quality journal that could offer a publishing outlet in the field called "biophysical economics" or "econophysics." You may have heard about this field: it is an approach to economics based on the same models used in biology. The idea was to examine the essential elements of an economic system: an entity that transforms resources into products, then waste. The main difference with traditional economics is that biophysical economics is focused on material things that can be measured: energy, mass, materials, and the like. In contrast, economics is heavily focused on money and prices and often loses contact with the physical world. 

For instance, it is often said in the mining industry that "prices create resources." The idea is that when a mineral resource becomes scarce because of depletion, 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. 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 fundamental to understanding this point. 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, for instance, biofuels and hydrogen. 

It may be time to replace the obsolete approach of traditional economics with the more rigorous one of biophysical economics. But it is just not happening. If you look at the number of publications in scientific journals, you see that growth has stalled during the past 10 years, and now it is going down. A search of the term "Biophysical Economics" on "Scopus" shows that not only growth stopped about 10 years ago, but the number of published studies remains small, a minor fraction of the publications in economics.  

Could a small group of dedicated people change this situation? We did our best with "Biophysical Economics and Sustainability," but if you peruse the list of publications, you see that the journal attracted mainly medium-quality, only marginally interesting publications. As a result, it never really impacted the field it was supposed to innovate. 

The main problem was the high cost of publication. If you want your article published in an "open access" format in "Biophysical Economics," you have to place $3,390 on the table. It is a lot of money for the strained budget of a scientist who is not part of the global scientific elite. One consequence was that I found myself as the editor of a journal where I could not afford to publish my research papers (one of the reasons why I resigned). Of course, publishing in the "paywalled" format will cost you nothing, but it will require about $40 for readers to access your article. And that guarantees that nobody will read it unless they have access to an academic library that subscribes to the journal. In the latter case, the paper will be read by a small number of specialists (maybe) but will have no impact on decision-makers and on a wider circle of scientists. No wonder the journal does not attract high-quality papers. If scientists have a paper they care about and want others to read, they'll publish it open-access in journals that charge a lower fee or none. 

Why does a publisher pursue a pricing policy guaranteed to throttle the flow of good papers to death? It is not a bug; it is a feature of the scientific publication process. It is well-known that consumers rely on prices to determine the quality of products. So, by making specific journals very expensive, publishers make them desirable, even though publishing in them means sacrificing a significant fraction of one's research budget. But why don't scientists rebel against this policy? It is because they are embedded in a Nash equilibrium and have no individual advantage in changing the system. 

You probably know that "science" is supposed to be formed of a bunch of disinterested truth-seekers who spend their lives investigating Nature and her ways. It is a good definition if you apply it to what science was. At the time of the great pioneers, say, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and many others, science could change the way we perceived the universe with the work of individuals whose primary tool was a pencil (or a quill). Up to the times of Einstein, Bohr, Planck, and others, about one century ago, this feature of science had not changed so much. 

Of course, no scientist ever worked alone. All of them 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 he owed his successes to having been standing "on the shoulder of giants." But science was a peculiar organization: it had no leaders, no governing bodies, no "kings," and no "popes." Some scientists had much more prestige than others, but science was an egalitarian organization where ideas flowed freely from one scientist to another. In principle, all scientists had the right to propose new ideas and to be heard by their peers. At that time, there was no such thing as the rigid hierarchy of scientific journals that exists nowadays. And journals didn't charge such outrageous fees for the privilege of publishing in them.

Allow me to use the term "holobiont" to describe science as a network. A holobiont is a complex system that arises by self-organization based on local interactions. The term is used mainly in biology, but 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 nodes interacting with each other at a level of near equality

One characteristic of holobionts as networks is that they can evolve and change. It is because when an element of the network changes, it can transmit the change to all the other elements using a chain reaction of local interactions. In this way, new ideas diffused in science: a good idea had a chance to make itself heard and affect the whole network. Of course, it took some time and, usually, the disappearance of an older generation of scientists, but generally, 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. It was rabidly contrasted at the beginning, but gradually, it imposed itself. And that radical change took just a few decades to be globally accepted. 

Things are different now. Nowadays, new ideas need help finding a space in a scientific environment that has become rigid and static. The example of biophysical economics is just one of several cases where new paradigms remain marginalized. That it is a general phenomenon in science can be seen in a recent paper published in Nature. Here are the main results. 

As you see, the innovative content of new papers, measured in terms of the "CD" (conservative/disruptive) index, has declined over the past 60 years. Even more worrisome is that, despite these data, nobody, nowhere, seems to have been publicly expressing the idea that some radical changes are needed in science. Nobody wants to rock the boat, fearing they would be the ones dumped overboard. 

Now, a fundamental point. All this does not mean that science as we know it is wrong. Science remains grounded on a solid knowledge base built over centuries of hard work. Thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, microbiology, and atmospheric physics are just examples of fields that generated profound and valuable knowledge. Within some limits, they are still generating it. But, recently, science seems to have undergone a process of "hierarchization." Hierarchical structures are rigid. They change only if the central vertex changes. And if the central vertex resists change (as it usually does), the network remains as nimble as a beached whale. Until it rots away. In a certain sense, it was unavoidable. Most human organizations tend to evolve by turning into rigid hierarchies that resist change. 

In the case of science, it was the result of 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 the extremely detailed rules provided by the funders -- private industries or state agencies. This is why immense efforts are spent searching for solutions for the wrong problems (for instance, creating a "hydrogen economy"). The search for funds is competitive, and you must comply with the rules to ensure you are allowed to continue. 

The other cause of the hierarchization of science is the stick. It is here that science publishers play a fundamental role. This is a subtle point: publishers do not select what is to be published (2). They only select prices. Because publishing is so expensive, only those scientists who can control large research grants can publish in the best (i.e., more expensive) scientific journals. That, in turn, ensures they gain more prestige and can access more grants. With more grants, they can publish more papers in high-ranking journals. Scientists who don't belong to the inner circle of financing are forced to publish in second or third-rank journals and are marginalized and ignored (3, 4). Innovative work cannot simply move out of the swamp where it is confined, so it cannot influence the top layer of scientific research. 

So, what is left of science if it cannot produce innovation? Little more than a giant machine dedicated to grinding pure air (or, as we say in Italy, "frying with water"). Little can be done to reform this fossilized structure 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 "Biophysical Economics and Sustainability,"  a nice try, but it couldn't have worked. So, the only way to get rid of an ancient 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, usually as the result of an external perturbation that makes it impossible for the whole network to maintain the links that keep it together. The powers that be could simply decide that they don't need science anymore and simply cut financing to it. A starved holobiont is a dead holobiont, so it would be the end of science as we know it. It is difficult to say what can arise in its place but, in principle, it might be something better than the science as we know it today.  

For a while, many of us thought we could find 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. So we remain facing Pilate's question: Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια? What is truth? Maybe one day we'll know. 


(1) If you go to the website of "Biophysical Economics and Sustainability), you still find my name among the editors. Sometimes, Springer is as reactive as a sleeping hippo.

(2) Recently, a new trend has been developing 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 science fact-checkers has appeared, possibly paid by the powers that be. They are engaged in finding mistakes in published papers, then pressing the editors to retract them. In principle, getting rid of those bad papers that survive the often sloppy reviewing mechanism of scientific journals is not a bad idea. However, in practice, it has a great potential for direct censorship of politically incorrect results. For example, during the Covid crisis, hundreds of papers on the subject were retracted. There is 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. 

(3) Here is an example of how impermeable the hierarchy of science can be. In 2015, two Turkish physicists, Ibrahim Semiz and Salim Ogur published a paper exploring 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 approached the subject in different ways. Still, 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 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. 

(4) Another recent case of censoring innovative ideas is that of a group of Italian scientists, Loredana Frasca, Giuseppe Ocone, and Raffaella Palazzo, who published an article where they evaluated the cost/benefit ratio of COVID-19 vaccines. They concluded that mass vaccination was not justified in many cases, particularly in view of the adverse effect on people with cardiac issues. It generated a strong backlash from their employer, ISS (Istituto Superiore di Sanità), which officially and publicly castigated them for having said things that the institute's leaders didn't approve of (there was once something called "academic freedom," alas....). The interesting point is that in the debate that ensued, some scientists took sides with the ISS by arguing that since the paper was published in a second-tier journal (MDPI's "Pathogens"), then it just didn't deserve any attention. Now, I can tell you that MDPI may not have the same prestige as "Nature" or "Science," but that doesn't mean the papers it publishes are not good. Snubbing a perfectly valid work just based on in which journal it had appeared is a good illustration of how elitarian science has become. 


  1. As an academic doing research on aerosol transmission of viruses these past years, I can tell you the problem you described is getting worse every day. I hope that the stagnation leads to change at some point.

    1. But viruses don’t exist. So what exactly are you measuring? Thank you. 🤔

  2. "Up to the times of Einstein, Bohr, Planck, and others, about one century ago, that was what science was".

    Where c is the speed of light, c * 2 is wrong, as it violates the theory.

    c^2 is also wrong, wherever it appears in any context.

    Therefore, E=mc^2 is wrong, too - if c in the formula is meant to be the speed of light - owing to there is no such thing in the universe as c^2 - if you trust the outgoing 20th Century Physics for a second.

    Scientists allow themselves using abstract math freely, mixing and matching concepts - haphazardly...

    "A black hole retains all the information about what enters it..."

    ...but have you ever watched a technician struggling with recovering data from a crashed hard drive, for god sake?

    ...the ceiling lights above him alone have taken oceans of fossil fuels to work - yet alone his equipment - this is if he is successful at all - and the data has not gone in vain for ever...

    And "that was what science was" in the last 100+ years....

    Countless eyes have been seeing E=mc^2 for the last century and thought nothing wrong with it...

    Huxley and Orwell should be forgiven for thinking their systems can last forever - finite fossil fuels are dangerously hypnotic to humans and their mental capacity....

    "In any system of energy, Control is what consumes energy the most.
    No energy store holds enough energy to extract an amount of energy equal to the total energy it stores.
    No system of energy can deliver sum useful energy in excess of the total energy put into constructing it.
    This universal truth applies to all systems.

    Energy, like time, flows from past to future".


    1. Energy flows from the present into the past- it is called entropy, and is accepted as a fact of thermodynamics: heat death awaits for the end of the universe. Every thing else you said was correct; then you contradicted it.

  3. All things happen for a reason. For now, we see through a glass, darkly.

  4. Ugo,

    a colleague of mine has recently retired as an academic in a scientific field. He had a long and very successful career, and has often spoken of the pleasure and personal opportunities he has had from his work. Many of his graduate students went on to become successful academics all over the world and many others went into industry; he has made some significant (or at least well cited) discoveries; he established and edited a major journal in the field. So by many measures he has contributed significantly to the social fabric of the scientific holobiont. In many respects his profile is not dissimilar to yours!

    But interestingly, he has said to me that he would not now encourage a student to pursue a career in academia, and in fact might even actively discourage it.

    I guess that this view may be either symptomatic or causal or both (i.e. a feedback in the complex system) of the sort of decline that you highlight here.

    What is your opinion? Would you be happy to see your graduate students (or younger family members) jump into the furnace of an academic career?


    1. Several of my former graduate students are pursuing academic careers. Of course, I could not propel them into the true global scientific elite -- I never had that kind of clout. But they are smart and competent, and they are doing reasonably well. As things are, nowadays, as long as you do your job, you publish papers, you follow the rules, you do not make noise about some things you think should be changed, then it is an interesting job, even though you soon realize that what you do is completely irrelevant for everyone, except for a few specialists in your narrow field. But there are much worse jobs in this world -- of course! Killer drone pilot, for instance, but I guess it is paid better.

  5. I think we've just kind of reached another limit, the limit of "knowledge"(?) so to speak. We are, after all, limited creatues of a certain sort (thermodynamic). Our senses and abilities have been tuned for survival and reproduction, not the furtherance understanding.

    We are in the process of burning a few million years worth of stored energy in a few hundred. This has allowed us undreamed luxuries (for a relative few). It has allowed us to increase our numbers beyond the believable. (At least to me, I cannot compehend 8 billion 60 kg monkeys running around on a single planet, but there you are.)

    One of the luxuries was to conduct science for its own sake. That too is coming to an end. I guess.

    1. The advances the individual scientist can make are getting smaller as the accumulated knowledge gets bigger. Could anyone have an impact on science today in the way some of the famous scientists of the past did? The discoveries they made changed the way we saw the world in a big way. Like knowing about the age of the earth and natural selection. Knowing the earth orbits the sun that the other suns in the universe are beyond count. No discovery made today could be so transformative regardless of how much newspaper hype it gets.

      This is the sort of topic to spend talking round a campfire late into the night.

  6. When I entered the world of science, ~ 30 years ago, naive & full of hope, even then I quickly saw the power of connections - whatever the form it took, private funding, state or other institution, those already in power guarded it jealously. Also becoming increasingly obvious was the influence of private corporations, as an undergrad on day one, you had to be blind to not see the better buildings & deep pockets of those departments funded by the country's dominant industries. This skewed the research towards the best profits for a few already rich individuals and their lackeys, not what would best benefit the people of the country as a whole.

    Over time these cancers left unchecked or even encouraged by rampant neoliberalism corrupted everything to the point where those who understand how it all works now do not trust any science at face value. As you say, there reaches a point where the barrel itself is irreversibly contaminated by fungi & you have to start again with a new one instead of putting new, healthy apples in with the rotten ones.

    Greed for money &/or power is always irresistible to enough of the population that it's inevitable that they will destroy any system given the time & opportunity.

  7. Yes, but you did not explain why to publish on BES is so costly.

    1. I said it is not a bug, but a feature. But you are right, it should be explained better

    2. Yes, it wasn't explained so well. Now it should be better.

  8. "Marginalized without possibility to affect generally accepted views."

    Decomplexification is what happens in collapse. The energy flows that supported scientific journals are choked off. Marginalization is the inevitable result. Tainter made his career on this. Looking for specific cause may miss the point.

    "You see, she was gonna be an actress
    And I was gonna learn to fly
    She took off to find the footlights
    And I took off to find the sky"

    Youth has the excess energy to support dreams. Dreams need energy, and dreams are part of science. Dreams like science venture into the unknown. Now dreams die as austerity rules the day.

    The vigor of the old easy energy society supported institutions and complex networks of many kinds. Now like dreams of youth, excess financial bloat and the food of dreams, won't float. Econophysics makes no money.

    "Scientists who don't belong to the inner circle of financing are forced to publish in second or third-rank journals, and they are marginalized and ignored."

    This statement shows money mixed with science. Who will the winner be? You know the answer, but you don't want to say it. And science lost respectability with the general public. Money made science into a scapegoat for bad behavior. Attitudes that don't renew subscriptions result.

  9. I can't help but think that this flaw is rooted in Capitalism. If the paper can't be monetised it's 'invaluable' so to speak.

  10. Another example of medical research that was turned into politics is diet. Paleo, Mediterranean, Atkins, Chinese ... Eat eggs , don't eat eggs, eat meat, don't eat meat, go vegetarian, don't go vegetarian, etc.

  11. "Science" has been a topic of discussion lately. When I did biomedical and physiology research in college and med school in 1979-1983 it was already apparent that fewer labs were funded by agencies which wanted truth, than were funded by businesses which needed a specific result.
    I did mostly NASA grant work and some cell-culture cancer research. Some well funded labs were flush with "private grants".
    As decades passed "evidence based medicine" became a catch phrase, where use of any treatment not backed by specific studies has been disparaged.
    Lots of cheap treatments work well for lots of medical conditions.
    Only expensive treatments have new studies to support them, because those studies are expensive, and studies are investments in future profits...
    Nobody will pay to study the comparison of a cheap treatment with an expensive treatment.

    Scientific method will survive, because each individual human can be rigorous in the defining of problems, and working out solutions to them.
    No priesthood of "Science" is required.

  12. Right Hugo, the system is corrupt, the researchers are just unwitting participants, just like your Doctor needing a new pool. So does this apply to climate and Renewable research as well? By your definition of a holobiont, WUWT (you share two sides of the same blog coin) can be considered such. They are exposing, like yourself, the corruption in academia.

    1. It is true. Climate science is going along the same path as medicine, but more slowly because there is not a lot of money involved. It has become very rigid, unflexible, and if you dare proposing something different than the accepted gospel, you are marginalized and ignored. In this sense, even sites like WUWT have their role: as I said in another post, it is good to listen to everybody, and trust nobody. But note that WUWT is pure political noise, maybe worth an occasional glimpse, but no more than that. I do follow some "heretics" such as Roy Spencer. He is a serious scientist -- it is another level.

    2. About renewables, too. There are similar points: just think of the hype about hydrogen. It is exactly the same mechanism of research paid to grind air and then regrind it, until it is well ground down, so that you can grind it again. But when a product reaches the market, it is a different story. You buy a PV panel that works now, not a research project to make a PV panel that may work one day in the future -- or maybe not.

  13. I think part of the problem that explains the trend is an overproduction of PhDs. In the US and a few other countries, there's little hope of securing a tenured research position because competition for funding becomes so fierce. Many young scientists leave the field because universities only want to hire those that can bring in research money, while those universities reduce the number of tenured positions to save money. Only a few established scientists can afford to take risks, and most aren't going to be innovative if it hurts their career. This only adds to the problems you mention in this post.

  14. 15 years ago after graduation i started my PhD, 3 months into that adventure i came to the conclusion you needed 50 years to realize. I immediately quit the academy after the realization. One of the best things i have done in my life.

  15. Mr. Bardi, The original authors of WUWT had credentials in climate science which are at least as good as yours, if not better. Additionally, the political aspects of 'global warming' were openly confessed as lies and mummery many years ago. When computer models fail time after time, they are worthless. You speak of the problems in "scientific research" and then turn about to accept the brazenly false research published by those whose views on anthropogenic global warming are known as part of the only "acceptable views' allowed in the upper echelons of Western governments. The mass media controls the thoughts of far too many followers these days, it is sad to see some great thinkers such as yourself fall for this hoax.

    The sun controls our world, the oceans soak up the heat and give it back. The earth has been cooling since it's birth, and will continue to do so. Brief warming periods after the last ice age gave rise to civilizations, which fell during the solar minimums. I question everyone who cannot understand that we need heat to live, CO2 FOR PLANTS (which is all geological all-time lows)- the basis of animal life! We pump CO2 into greenhouses for gods sake to get plants to grow. Sea levels are exactly the same as they were over a hundred years ago- the models were WRONG and they still are.

    Overuse of resources IS the problem we face today: I agree with you one hundred per cent. War is now our future for those resources we have left. Population reduction is the plan of the WEF and their masters to insure the resources that are left will belong to them. We had a chance to get energy for nearly all with nuclear power and other technologies; the global scams of the elites will insure a future of feudal tyranny over a slave class of serfs- hopeful they know who is capable of keeping the machines running. It's not those people invading the "West"- so maybe they want South Africa after all.