Why is there no Disruptive Science Being Published?

One paper (Park et al. Nature 613: pp 138) that caught my attention over the post-Christmas period made the proposition that scientific papers are getting less disruptive over time, until now, in the physical sciences, there is essentially very little disruption currently. First, what do I mean by disruption? To me, this is a publication that is at cross-purposes with established thought. Thus the recent claim there is no sterile neutrino is at best barely disruptive because the existence of it was merely a “maybe” solution to another problem. So why has this happened? One answer might be we know everything so there is neither room nor need for disruption. I can’t accept that. I feel that scientists do not wish to change: they wish to keep the current supply of funds coming their way. Disruptive papers keep getting rejected because what reviewer who has spent decades on research want to let through a paper that essentially says he is wrong? Who is the peer reviewer for a disruptive paper?

Let me give a personal example. I made a few efforts to publish my theory of planetary formation in scientific journals. The standard theory is that the accretion disk dust formed planetesimals by some totally unknown mechanism, and these eventually collided to form planets. There is a small industry in running computer simulations of such collisions. My paper was usually rejected, the only stated reason being it did not have computer simulations. However, the proposition was that the growth was caused chemically and used the approximation there were no collisions. There was no evidence the reviewer read the paper past the absence of mention of simulations in the abstract. No comment about the fact here was the very first mechanism stated as to how accretion started and with a testable mathematical relationship regarding planetary spacing.

If that is bad, there is worse. The American Physical Society has published a report of a survey relating to ethics (Houle, F. H., Kirby, K. P. & Marder, M. P. Physics Today 76, 28 (2023). In a 2003 survey, 3.9% of early physicists admitted that they had been required to falsify data, or they did it anyway, to get to publication faster, to get more papers. By 2020, that number has risen to 7.3%. Now, falsifying data will only occur to get the result that fits in with standard thinking, because if it doesn’t, someone will check it.

There is an even worse problem: that of assertion. The correct data is obtained, any reasonable interpretation will say it contradicts the standard thinking, but it is reported in a way that makes it appear to comply. This will be a bit obscure for some, but I shall try to make it understandable. The paper is: Maerker, A.; Roberts, J. D. J. Am. Chem.Soc. 1966, 88, 1742-1759. At the time there was a debate whether cyclopropane could delocalize electrons. Strange effects were observed and there were two possible explanations: (1) it did delocalize electrons; (2) there were electric field effects. The difference was that both would stabilize positive charge on an adjacent centre, but the electric field effects would be opposite if the charge was opposite. So while it was known that putting a cyclopropyl ring adjacent to a cationic centre stabilized it, what happened to an anionic centre? The short answer is that most efforts to make R – (C-) – Δ, where Δ means cyclopropyl failed, whereas R – (C-) – H is easy to make. Does that look as if we are seeing stabilization? Nevertheless, if we put the cyclopropyl group on a benzylic carbon by changing R to a phenyl group φ so we have φ – (C-) – Δ an anion was just able to be made if potassium was the counter ion. Accordingly it was stated that the fact the anion was made was attributed to the stabilizing effect of cyclopropyl. No thought was given to the fact that any chemist who cannot make the benzyl anion φ – (C-) – H should be sent home in disgrace. One might at least compare like with like, but not apparently if you would get the answer you don’t want. What is even more interesting is that this rather bizarre conclusion has gone unremarked (apart from by me) since then.

This issue was once the source of strong debate, but a review came out and “settled” the issue. How? By ignoring every paper that disagreed with it, and citing the authority of “quantum mechanics”. I would not disagree that quantum mechanics is correct, but computations can be wrong. In this case, they used the same  computer programmes that “proved” the exceptional stability of polywater. Oops. As for the overlooked papers, I later wrote a review with a logic analysis. Chemistry journals do not publish logic analyses. So in my view, the reason there are no disruptive papers in the physical sciences is quite clear: nobody really wants them. Not enough to ask for them.

Finally, some examples of papers that in my opinion really should have  done better. Weihs et al. (1998) arXiv:quant-ph/9810080 v1 claimed to demonstrate clear violations of Bell’s inequality, but the analysis involved only 5% of the photons? What happened to the other 95% is not disclosed. The formation of life is critically dependent on reduced chemicals being available. A large proportion of ammonia was found in ancient seawater trapped in rocks at Barberton (de Ronde et al. Geochim.  Cosmochim. Acta 61: 4025-4042.) Thus information critical for an understanding of biogenesis was obtained, but the information was not even mentioned in the abstract or in keywords, so it is not searchable by computer. This would have disrupted the standard thinking of the ancient atmosphere, but nobody knew about it. In another paper, spectroscopy coupled with the standard theory predicted strong bathochromic shifts (to longer wavelengths) for a limited number of carbenium ions, but strong hypsochromic shifts were observed without comment (Schmitze, L. R.; Sorensen, T. S. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1982, 104, 2600-2604.) So why was no fuss made about these things by the discoverers? Quite simply, they wanted to be in with the crowd. Be good, get papers, get funded. Don’t rock the boat! After all, nature does not care whether we understand or not.

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Scientists Behaving Badly

You may think that science is a noble activity carried out by dedicated souls thinking only of the search for understanding and of improving the lot of society. Wrong! According to an item published in Nature ( https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02035-2) there is rot in the core. A survey of 64,000 researchers at 22 universities in the Netherlands was carried out, 6,813 actually filled out the form and returned it, and an estimated 8% of scientists who so returned their forms in the anonymous survey confessed to falsifying or fabricating data at least once between 2017 and 2020. Given that a fraudster is less likely to confess, that figure is probably a clear underestimate.

There is worse. More than half of respondents also reported frequently engaging in “questionable research practices”. These include using inadequate research designs, which can be due to poor funding and hence more understandable, and frankly this could be a matter of opinion. On the other hand, if you confess to doing it you are at best slothful. Much worse, in my opinion, was deliberately judging manuscripts or fund applications while peer reviewing unfairly. Questionable research practices are “considered lesser evils” than outright research misconduct, which includes plagiarism and data fabrication. I am not so sure of that. Dismissing someone else’s work or fund application hurts their career.

There was then the question of “sloppy work”, which included failing to “preregister experimental protocols (43%), make underlying data available (47%) or keep comprehensive research records (56%)” I might be in danger here. I had never heard about “preregistering protocols”. I suspect that is more for the medical research than for physical sciences. My research has always been of the sort where you plan the next step based on the last step you have taken. As for “comprehensive records, I must admit my lab books have always been cryptic. My plan was to write it down, and as long as I could understand it, that was fine. Of course, I have worked independently and records were so I could report more fully and to some extent for legal reasons.

If you think that is bad, there is worse in medicine. On July 5 an item appeared in the British Medical Journal with the title “Time to assume that health research is fraudulent until proven otherwise?” One example: a Professor of epidemiology apparently published a review paper that included a paper that showed mannitol halved the death rate from comparable injuries. It was pointed out to him that that paper that he reviewed was based on clinical trials that never happened! All the trials came from a lead author who “came from an institution” that never existed! There were a number of co-authors but none had ever contributed patients, and many did not even know they were co-authors. Interestingly, none of the trials had been retracted so the fake stuff is still out there.

Another person who carried out systematic reviews eventually realized that only too many related to “zombie trials”. This is serious because it is only by reviewing a lot of different work can some more important over-arching conclusions be drawn, and if a reasonable percentage of the data is just plain rubbish everyone can jump to the wrong conclusions. Another medical expert attached to the journal Anaesthesia found from 526 trials, 14% had false data and 8% were categorised as zombie trials. Remember, if you are ever operated on, anaesthetics are your first hurdle! One expert has guessed that 20% of clinical trials as reported are false.

So why doesn’t peer review catch this? The problem for a reviewer such as myself is that when someone reports numbers representing measurements, you naturally assume they were the results of measurement. I look to see that they “make sense” and if they do, there is no reason to suspect them. Further, to reject a paper because you accuse it of fraud is very serious to the other person’s career, so who will do this without some sort of evidence?

And why do they do it? That is easier to understand: money and reputation. You need papers to get research funding and to keep your position as a scientist. It is very hard to detect, unless someone repeats your work, and even then there is the question, did they truly repeat it? We tend to trust each other, as we should be able to. Published results get rewards, publishers make money, Universities get glamour (unless they get caught out). Proving fraud (as opposed to suspecting it) is a skilled, complicated and time-consuming process, and since it shows badly on institutions and publishers, they are hardly enthusiastic. Evil peer review, i.e. dumping someone’s work to promote your own is simply strategic, and nobody will do anything about it.

It is, apparently, not a case of “bad apples”, but as the BMJ article states, a case of rotten forests and orchards. As usual, as to why, follow the money.