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.


  1. Ugo,
    Indeed, that's not the way "to support scientits" or science or people in general.
    Frontiers is a factory, apparently. Markram has applied for this patent:

    Internet method, process and system for publication and evaluation
    WO 2007138556 A3
    A technical method for evaluation, publication and distillation of information, such as scientific articles and other similar work, said method, process and system comprising at least the following technical process steps (1) an interactive online reviewing process of said information before it is published; (2) a publication process of said information if accepted; (3) an evaluation process of said information once published; (4) a distillation process of said published information in a tier filtering system based on said evaluation process

    the 40,000+ people involved - according to their website - are workers at the assembly and delivery lines.
    Not quite the teamwork you had in mind, is it?

  2. Hang in there, Dr. Bardi.
    Your ideas regarding open access seem ideally suited to the age of mass internet access and may yet revolutionise how scientists communicate their research.
    Frontiers is but one step - but apparently suffering from a mis-step - along the way.

    Be assured that despite the apparent noise of the climate denier machine, my reality and that of most that I inquire of, is that people know it's happening and are willing to do their 'bit'. How well that holds up as conditions deteriorate will be the challenge in times to come. But I'm hopeful that even then we can pull through.
    Thank you for taking a stand against bullying.
    I hope it leads to more and better opportunities for you.

  3. Thanks, useful in gaining insight, and Eli Rabett's Amway Science is an interesting take on it.

    1. Both sides too much recalls Jay Lifton's warning about how easily 'ideological totalism' rears its head when both sides in a controversy strive to reform the thoughts of the benighted Other

  4. It may or may not have done any good to prevent the people who run Frontiers from caving in to intimidation in the future but at least because of Ugo's resignation they probably got the message that not everybody thinks its a wonderful or good thing to do....and of course they are then free to come up with whatever lame excuses or dissembling acts they please since in their hearts they know the truth...not to mention that they seem to be running some kind of a clever exploitation or "roping in" gig vis-a-vis their multi-tiered sets of junior editors, editors, super editors and super-super editors....and etc. It's true that a publisher is a commercial outfit and needs to make a profit and be accountable to shareholders if it's a public company. But most business organizations now recognize that shareholders and the bottom line are only one of several stakeholders and that businesses need to be accountable or at least be responsible / responsive to some of the other ones too. And it's not that hard to think of what other groups or entities have a stake and are stakeholders to a scientific publisher. (such as readers, the general scientific community, the specific scientific community related to the topic, the general public and also the standing of science in society as a whole)

  5. "The way Frontiers behaved with "Recursive Fury" shows this attitude in a crystal clear manner. Their management listened only to their lawyers"
    Again not true, if you read this FOI documents from UWA
    It becomes clear that Frontiers set up a committee of senior academics without any Frontiers employees to advise them. Having received their advice they acted in accordance with it.

    It is a shame Lewandowsky deceived you and others into this state of affairs.

  6. Amway: a much better analogy, tks EliRabett

    Littlegreyrabbit is trying to deceive you and others. The FOI documents do not mention to Frontiers' committee, they refer to LOG2012 in Psychological Science.

    1. Of course: the little bunny doesn't even deserve an answer

    2. Of course I don't.
      I should apologize, I linked to the wrong FOI dump. You will find the committee I referred to page 3 of this file
      An email of 1/May/2013.

      Any deceit on my part was unintended and I think we can agree entirely inconsequential.

  7. That series of documents relates to the UWAs ethics committee and their approval process for research. It demonstrates that Lewandowsky complied with the ethics committee's requirements for the conduct of ethical research. It shows nothing about Frontiers, except to demonstrate perhaps that they had no basis for removal of the research from the publication on ethical grounds as the University found the research to have been conducted ethically. If anything those documents bolster the argument that Frontiers acted poorly. They do not demonstrate anything about Frontiers decision making process when deciding to remove the article.

    *note, I did give up at page 75 of 282, so if there is something more useful on a later page, direct me and I will read it to assess its relevance.

    1. Page 3 of this file
      apologies again for linking to the wrong FOI document dump

    2. Ugo,
      another attempt to deceive: there's nothing in that PDF about the Frontiers committee's opinion either.
      I wouldn't want a rabid Holocaust denier like l.g.r. commenting on my blog with a handle linking to his website, but that's up to you.

      It's only 120 page-long and rather repetitive. You might find - not really useful but ironic pages 99-108 where Steve McIntyre uses quotes hacked from the private forum of Skeptical Science.

    3. Greybunny, you are flooding the comments with your messages. And none of them is relevant to the point I was making with my post. What exactly are you trying to demonstrate? Try to make a clear statement, and I'll publish it. Otherwise, sorry, no way.

      BTW, I went to see your blog on the holocaust; do you realize that you are living proof of Lewandowsky's finding on conspiratorial attitudes? I understand that one has to keep a critical attitude on everything, but don't you think you are overdoing it a bit?



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)