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Signing papers March 16, 2008

Posted by dorigo in physics, politics, science.

Anybody who wishes to make a career as a scientist has to reckon with the annoying fact that the single most important building block in the whole process is the publication – preferably on a refereed journal. Regardless how much you are brilliant and knowledgeable, you cannot expect to be hired only because of your looks or your speech. This is even more true in systems which do not use the “reference letter” system, such as in Italy – where candidates for a position are not allowed to let illustrious personalities of the field to speak on them behalf, and where any application for a research position has to be complemented with large envelope containing a copy of all one’s publications.

In some cases, publications are analyzed by their “impact factor” which depends on the number of citations the paper generated. Other measures include the so-called H-index, which summarizes in a single two-digit number the scientific production of a candidate: it corresponds to the number H of papers signed by the author which got at least H citations each.

Publishing something worth to be cited is tough. And producing a research worth writing down is only a part of the job: the non-trivial rest is getting it approved by the refereeing process. However, large collaborations such as particle physics experiments make it much easier for individuals to obtain a thick list of articles with one’s name on them: agreements vary, but in most cases anything that is published has to carry the names of all members on it. That is very convenient: by belonging to a collaboration, one feels relieved of the need to self-promote oneself.

Of course, a publication which you directly contribute to –by being one of the main authors of the underlying study, or by having developed a software or hardware tool which is critical for the success of the investigation- is more important for your curriculum, and you will be well-advised to highlight it in the list you attach to your resume. But even in the absence of anything you directly contribute to, you will not come empty-handed in front of the next job search committee.

The mechanism outlined above makes any search committee’s work harder. If they want to do their job properly, search committees need to assess the weight of a candidate’s contribution to any paper presented for consideration, and it is quite hard to do it for publications with 700 names on them – and more so if there are 100 of them, often irrelevant ones, rather than one or two important ones. For that reason, papers with few authors are very valuable: they stand out, and their relevance is easier to recognize, they might run the risk of getting fewer citations –and thus being less valuable – but your contribution to them cannot be questioned any longer. But how does one manage to publish a paper with few authors, if one is a member of a large collaboration where the policy is to have all names on every article.

Well, there are ways to do it.  I can describe what happens in the CDF experiment at the Tevatron as a case on which I am informed. In CDF, a paper describing analysis results usually gets submitted to either Physics Review Letters (PRL) or Physics Review D (PRD). Papers discussing more technical issues typically get submitted to Nuclear Instruments and Methods (NIM), and in the latter case one can propose a short list of names as authors who “specifically contributed” to the work presented. The process of putting names on the article becomes incremental, and the default author list is circumvented. Most collaborators will avoid begging for their name to be inserted in a paper they did not even know had been written, and short lists will result.

Despite the fact that NIM is less “prestigious” a magazine than PRL or PRD, the game is worth playing. But what defines what is technical and what is not ? A technical publication must not contain real physics results, for which a very well-defined approval process is enforced. Hardware descriptions, analysis methods, sub-detector performance studies: these are things that easily pass as “short author list” papers in CDF. However, the system can be gamed to some extent. A recent case in CDF was an analysis which did not look at real data, and only used detector simulations to assess the discovery reach of the experiment for some very exotic new physics process. The work had been produced by a few colleagues collaborating with some theorists which had an idea and wanted to test it in more detail than with a simple “idealized detector” model. They requested a green light to the experiment, but several colleagues of mine objected – and I did too.

The matter is in fact quite debatable. CDF considers his own property not just the data, but –correctly, in my opinion- also its very accurate detector simulation, which required years of unrewarding work to be tuned and perfected. If CDF allowed its members to contact individually a theorist with a good idea and do sensitivity studies on this or that new process, we would be doing a poor service to Science: we would end up with lots of unexploited good ideas. A few individuals would get nice publications in their resume, at the expense of those who did not take part in the process directly. It is much better, in my opinion, if the collaboration as a whole considers a search, produces an analysis on the data, and publishes the model and the results together. The theorist, in the latter case, can be referenced in the paper, or even figure as a visiting scientist and be included in the long author list.

Eventually, though, experiments with strict policies about publication issues like CDF have to reckon with the fact that the data they produce are not private property, but a world heritage. On the sad day when the Tevatron shuts down for good, it will be utterly nonsensical to keep the data private. It will be the time when the Tony Smiths out there will finally have a way to prove their point!



1. Louise - March 17, 2008

One can certainly sympathise with the Tony Smiths. The journals are quite reluctant to publish anything considered unorthodox or anything from a single author.

BTW, is the PPC 2008 conference accepting contributed talks?

2. Jon Lester - March 17, 2008

If you belong to the proper mafia you will able to get your ideas through for theoretical particle physics. In this way you will be able to get a sound number of publications and citations. Other ways do not exist. Sorry. Whatever you have found will be lost forever in the fog of time. But if you have already a significant number of published papers this will not be enough for you to enter into such a mob. Probably, the journals you published on are respectable but you are not as you are entering into someone else turf.


3. Tony Smith - March 17, 2008

Jon Lester said that if “… you are not … respectable … Sorry. Whatever you have found will be lost forever in the fog of time. …”.

Sadly, I agree.
Even though I have had the personal pleasure of many “Eureka” moments in building my physics model with which I have calculated particle masses, force strengths, K-M parameters, Ordinary Matter – Dark Matter – Dark Energy ratios … etc … (it is fun to do calculations and see that they realistically represent real experimental data),
it is true that I am not respectable
and, as Tommaso said, will be barred from access to data that could further test my work until “… the Tevatron shuts down for good …”. Further, based on its history of going along with the Cornell arXiv in blacklisting my work, CERN and the LHC will probably act similarly.

Now,the ratio of
new happy “Eureka” moments
disappointing efforts to communicate my work to the physics community
seems to have declined to the point of diminishing returns, and I should cease further active communication efforts.

Although I may post on my web site another few pages of some work now in progress, I recognize that it is likely that after I am gone and unable to actively maintain it, my ISP might not remain forever in its present friendly ownership, thus fulfilling Jon Lester’s prophecy.
Another way of saying it is this quote from Blade Runner:
“… I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. …
All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain.
Time to die. …”


Tony Smith

4. dorigo - March 17, 2008

Hi Tony,

no reason to despair. The internet is a quite redundant method of storing information. I doubt that a server dying is enough for any information to be lost – hell, there is even a way back machine in effect.

In any case, good ideas do not die, they just take a nap for a while before they flourish.


5. dorigo - March 17, 2008

Hi Louise,

I answered you privately.


6. dorigo - March 17, 2008

Jon, I agree – there is some small change mafia in effect out there. But things are changing, because the internet is becoming so powerful a means of exchanging scientific information. I do believe that a dozen years from now scientific papers will exist primarily in the internet, and peer-review will be substituted with more open, more friendly means of validation.

On the other hand, let me say one thing against the flow here. So there is a mafia deciding what gets published on PRL, PRD, and the like. So what. Nobody reads those papers anyway! The Arxiv is different, but even if they ban somebody, the chance to diffuse one’s theories has increased by orders of magnitude from before the internet era. What sucks is that the process of hiring scientists is still so baroque and heavily relies on the amount of trees they contributed to grounding.


7. John - March 17, 2008

Hi Tommaso,

You are right. The greatest invention ever in scientific publishing is arxiv. I have no doubt about and I think a lot of our colleagues think the same. Anyhow, I have observed some strange behavior in arxiv. I have written to admins without an answer. The question is: I can endorse papers by other authors in almost all archives but I cannot endorse myself. This paradoxical situation can sound absurd for similar archives like hep-th and hep-ph. So, why can I submit on hep-th and I need endorsement for hep-ph but I can anyhow endorse papers by others in the latter?

The point in question is when and how truth emerges. With mafia ruling there is a strong slowing down in this sense as is the group that decides what is worth pursuing and this may not be the right direction. This means also a damage to experimentalists that look to theorists to decide what is worth to study.

The immediate effect you get on your papers is that you obtain no citation at all also when you are supporting one of the views going around into the ruling group. Simply, you do not belong to them and you are occupying a turf that is not yours.

I have seen people with tenth publications in respectable journals being ignored in conferences (registration ignored I mean) or in their published papers. Let me say that this is a regression with respect to e.g. Feynman who claimed that we need good ideas without caring about the source. Now sources count more than good ideas! This is not science is just a misbehavior we will pay for.

I would like to be sure like you that things can change through arxiv or internet publishing but let me say that I am skeptical about as also this is managed by the same community that produced this kind of distortions into pursuing for knowledge.


8. Mendo - March 17, 2008

Hi Tommaso,

Thinking of the ‘physics mafia’ I’d say it is not a single organization, rather several families…

Guess I was lucky enough to work in a small collaboration so actually managed to get lead authorship in most of my individual work. I did actually have a similar experience to the case you mention of your colleagues collaborating with theorists. In my case the collaboration was small enough that the short author list was the entire collaboration, and all we had to decide was who came first in the list!

I think you’re right that the scientific publications will increasingly use the web – the whole open-access idea would only seem to work this way. I’m not sure it’ll be any more friendly though – physicists, especially theorists, seem to love a good fight.

The question of future public access to data is an interesting one. I agree with you that it’s stupid to keep it private, and I wonder how you would see open access developing for HEP data?


9. dorigo - March 18, 2008

Hello Jon,

sure – online archives have weird policies and they ban people, like Tony by Cornell. What I believe is that they are a huge improvement over the situation existing before the internet era. When and how another big jump ahead will happen is unclear, but I believe its seeds are already planted. I run this site and, with a relatively minor effort, I have managed to get big media interested in the things I write or report about: Physics World, New Scientist, the New York Times, Nature… I could go on: nowadays, scientific reporters are used to dig in blogs to find material for their articles.

Of course, some things sell more than others – and the same holds for scientific research: one cannot blame the “establishment” for not considering one’s pet theory of everything if the theory holds no water. In this sense, I see online publication on blogs or private sites a major opportunity for these off-stream studies to get reviewed and criticized before they can be proposed to “serious” online repositories. Again, I can only cite this very site, for a modest but meaningful example. Have a look at my list of guest posts: it contains, together with other “orthodox” material, a few summaries of ideas or theories which run against common wisdom. These posts get comments by scientists interested in the matter, get scrutinized, and criticized. Is this a good start, or what ?


10. dorigo - March 18, 2008

Hi Mendo,

I think *any* scientific experiment should, once its authors have had the chance to publish their results, make available the data to the public, together with any additional information necessary to make sense of it.

How to do this ? I hold a quite radical view on the matter: for a particle physics experiment, for instance, accounts should be granted to anybody interested on the computing system that manages the data. Say CDF stops collecting data in 2010: give three years to members of the collaboration to work at it, and then create a foundation that maintains minimal resources necessary to access data, internal notes, calibration datasets, simulation programs, and a suitable computing center for public fruition of the information. This would cost a small fraction of the moneys that were spent to build and run the apparatus during its normal life cycle, and it would remain as a legacy to mankind, no more and no less than large libraries.


11. Mendo - March 18, 2008

Hi Tommaso,

Thanks for the reply! I don’t think it’s such a radical idea, although having said that I can’t think of any other science project, HEP or otherwise, that’s done this. As you note the resources would be small compared with current big science budgets, and given the comparison with a library, perhaps the funding wouldn’t be a problem (eternal optimist that I am). Would also be a great educational resource…

Let’s hope it comes to pass…


12. Jon Lester - March 20, 2008


let me say that I find your way to treat outsiders praiseworthy and I hope you will keep on following this open minded view. Anyhow, I think that me and you are in a better situation as we can post papers to arxiv and archival journals publish our papers (being you an experimentalist your situation is surely better than mine) and this is the proper environment to have at least a minimal hope to be listened by the community. But I share Feynman’s view and I would like to hear more voices out of the chorus if any…



13. dorigo - March 21, 2008

Hi Mendo,

yes, and the concept of libraries of scientific data is now commonplace in Astronomy, so I think it is only a matter of funding.

Hi Jon,

yes, of course publishing some ideas on a low traffic blog is not the same thing as getting something on a journal. But in earnest, published papers are sometimes not read so much either – I would love to see stats of downloaded papers on the arxiv, I am rather ignorant on that issue.

Cheers all,

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