Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Physical Review Letters: physics' luxury journal

Have you ever wondered why this apparently interesting new paper on arXiv was only four or five pages long? Why it had this unreadable format with two columns in fine print, with formulas that sometimes straddle both columns, and with these cramped figures? Why the technical details were relegated to appendices or future work, if not omitted altogether? And why so much of the already meager text was devoted to boastful hot air?

Most physics researchers do not wonder for long, and immediately recognize a paper that is destined to be submitted to Physical Review Letters. That journal’s format is easy to recognize, as it has barely changed since 50 years ago – a time when page limits had the rationale of saving ink and paper. That rationale having now evaporated, the awful format has nevertheless survived as a signal of prestige. Because, you see, Physical Review Letters is supposed to be physics’ top journal, which means that publishing there is supposed to be good for one’s career.

So Physical Review Letters is to physics what Nature, Science and Cell are to biology: a career-defining journal whose prestige is based on entrenched prejudice, rather than on the strength of its contribution to academic communication. The biologist Randy Schekman has called Nature, Science and Cell “luxury journals”, and vowed to boycott them because they are damaging science by rewarding the flashiest science, not the best.

For the same reasons, physicists could well consider boycotting Physical Review Letters. This would first mean not publishing in that journal or doing editorial work for it, as in the case of the “Cost of knowledge” Elsevier boycott. In the case of a luxury journal, this could even mean not reading or citing it. After all, if an article is so brief and unreadable that a longer version is needed for filling out the details, why not read and cite that longer version?

Of course, in the prevailing academic environment, boycotting luxury journals is easier said than done, especially for researchers who, unlike Randy Schekman, did not yet get their Nobel prize. Even when shown that it is possible to survive as a scientist or even earn a Fields medal on the strengths of arXiv preprints, researchers will rightly be wary of their peers and administrators, who too often measure their contributions to science by counting articles in luxury journals. Then it is possible to adopt milder forms of mitigating the downsides of Physical Review Letters: for instance, writing an arXiv preprint in one’s preferred format, and then rewriting it for submission to Physical Review Letters, while not considering the published version as much more than an administrative form. (In this example, notice the differences in lengths, titles, and dates of last modification, between the arXiv and published versions.)

In the age of arXiv, the purpose of scientific journals is rapidly moving from scientific communication, to career management. Journals who want to retain some scientific relevance had better show it by taking steps such as eliminating absurd formatting constraints, and adopting some form of open peer review. Otherwise, they may well degenerate into mere purveyors of bureaucratic formalities / parasitic enterprises that suck time and money out of research / engines of the speculative bubble of bibliometrics. (Please choose your favourite invective.)