Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"Recursive Fury:" the reasons of Frontiers' blunder

As you probably know, the scholarly publisher "Frontiers" recently decided to retract an already approved and published paper ("Recursive Fury") on the subject of conspiratorial attitudes in the debate on climate change. This action prompted the resignation of some of Frontiers' editors, including myself, as I described in a previous post. Here, I return to this subject with more details. 

When I was contacted by the staff of "Frontiers" and asked to become "chief editor" with them, I thought it was an excellent idea. I was attracted, first of all, by the fact that the journal was completely "open access," an idea that I have always favored (I was probably one of the first to experiment with open access publishing in chemistry). So, I accepted the offer with considerable enthusiasm and I started to work on a journal (actually a section of a journal) called "Frontiers in Energy Systems and Policy".

Once an editor, I discovered the peculiar structure of the Frontiers system. It is a giant pyramidal scheme where each journal has sub-journals (called "specialties" in Frontiers' jargon). The pyramid extends to the people involved with the scientific editing: it starts with "chief editors" who supervise "chief specialty editors", who supervise "associate editors", who supervise "reviewers". Since each steps involves a growth of a factor 10-20 in the number of people, you can see that each journal of the Frontiers series may involve a few thousand scientists. The whole system may count, probably, tens of thousands of scientists.

Why this baroque structure? The official explanation is that it makes the review process go faster. In this, the pyramidal structure of Frontiers looks somewhat like a military "command and control" system which is, indeed, designed to speed up the communication/action process. Of course, if you enlist as an editor in Frontiers, you are not given orders by the layers above; nevertheless you are continuously pestered by communications and reminders about what you have to do and you are supposed to pass these communications to the layers below you. All these messages do push you to complete your assignments.

But my impression is that the pyramidal structure of Frontiers was not created just for speed; it had a a marketing objective. Surely, involving so many scientists in the process creates an atmosphere of participation which encourages them to submit their papers to the journal and this is where the publisher makes money, of course. This is a strategy typical of pyramidal marketing schemes, such as "multi-level marketing" I cannot prove that the structure of Frontiers was conceived in these terms from the beginning, but, apparently, they are not alien to use aggressive promoting tactics for their business.

As you may imagine, such a complex system brings many problems. First, the plethora of sub-journals makes the whole Frontiers system look like Borges' Chinese "Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge" - in short, a mess. Then, in the case of very large systems the problem of control is practically unsolvable: see Reagan's "Star Wars" as an example. Maybe Frontiers is not so complex as the old strategic defense initiative, but the problems are the same. Their Internet site is supposed to manage the activity of thousands (or perhaps tens of thousands) of scientists but, in my experience, it never really worked. And managing the whole system must require a considerable number of permanent staff. As a result, publishing with "Frontiers" doesn't come cheap.

So, after nearly one year of work with Frontiers, I was growing more and more perplexed. I had this feeling of being just a cog in a giant machine that didn't work very well and which had the only purpose of making money for the top layers of the pyramid. Please, do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with the idea of making money in the publishing business: absolutely not. It is also clear to me that if the publisher is a commercial enterprise, then it is their right to decide what to publish and what not to publish. The way Frontiers behaved with "Recursive Fury" shows this attitude in a crystal clear manner. Their management listened only to their lawyers and they took the decision that involved the lowest financial risk for them. It was not just an occasional blunder, it was the consequence of the decisional structure of the publisher.

Once this point was clear, it appeared also clear to me what the problem was: granted that a commercial publisher can publish what they want, who defends science (and in particular climate science) against special interest groups, lobbies, assorted anti-science groups and single madmen? You can't ask to do that to a commercial enterprise which is (correctly) focused on profit. But you can ask why so many scientists should give their time and their work for free to a commercial enterprise which doesn't appear to be really interested in defending science. At this point, my choice was obvious. I resigned as an editor of "Frontiers." Others did the same for similar reasons.

I hope that these notes help clarify my position in this story. As I said in my previous note, my resignation had nothing to do with the virtues (or the defects) of the paper titled "Recursive Fury." I am not qualified to make a judgment in that field and, anyway, this is not the point. The point I wanted to make - and I hope it is understood - is that we have to react against the climate of intimidation which is engulfing science, and in particular climate science. This climate of intimidation takes many forms and the case of "Recursive Fury" shows that it has now reached also scientific publishing. The problem, here, is not with a specific publisher. It is that we are stuck with a century old model of communication: expensive and ineffective and, worse, easily subverted by special interest groups (on this point, see for instance this post by Dana Nuccitelli).

So, what can we do? Initially, open access seemed to be a good idea to improve on the publishing process, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it may be causing more harm than good. In addition of having generated hundreds of low quality "predatory publishers,"  it is being appropriated by traditional publishers and turned into a way to extract even more money from scientific research budgets.

I still believe in open access publishing, but I think we have a lot of work to do if we want it to become the revolution in scientific communication we hoped it would be. That will take time and, for the time being, we are stuck with a system based on commercial publishers who are not necessarily keen to defend science in this difficult moment. But we can at least fight back if we refrain from publishing with journals which fail to defend science and even walk away from them as editors, as I did with Frontiers. That should give them at least a nudge in the right direction.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)