Friday, June 14, 2013

Come on, PRL editors.

I rarely criticize papers.  I write this not to single out the authors (none of whom I know), nor to criticize the actual science (which seems very interesting) but to ask pointedly:  How did the editors of PRL, a journal that allegedly prizes readability by a general physics audience, allow this to go through in its current form?  This paper is titled "Poor Man’s Understanding of Kinks Originating from Strong Electronic Correlations".  A natural question would be, "Kinks in what?".  Unfortunately, the abstract doesn't say.  Worse, it refers to "the central peak".  Again, a peak in what?!   Something as a function of something, that's for sure. 

Come on, editors - if you are going to let articles be knocked from PRL contention because they're "more suitable for a specialized journal", that obligates you to make sure that the papers you do print at least have titles and abstracts that are accessible.  I'm even a specialist in the field and I wasn't sure what the authors were talking about (some spectral density function?) based on the title and abstract.

The authors actually do a good job explaining the issue in the very first sentence of the paper:  "Kinks in the energy vs. momentum dispersion relation indicate deviations from a quasiparticle renormalization of the noninteracting system."   That should have been the first sentence in the abstract.  In a noninteracting system, the relationship between energy and momentum of particles is smooth.  For example, for a free electron, \( E = p^{2}/2m \) where \(m\) is the mass.  In an ordinary metal (where Fermi liquid theory works), you can write a similar smooth relationship for the energy vs. momentum relationship of the quasiparticles. Kinks in that relationship, as the authors say, "provide valuable information of many-body effects".  


Doru Constantin said...

I'm afraid PRL is a victim of its own success. Probably due to the sheer number of submitted papers, the editors are reduced to simply tallying the points between referees and authors.

The referees are specialists, and the suitability for a general audience is not necessarily their first concern (although it can be a convenient way to dismiss the paper without addressing its content).

In my experience, the editorial process of the ACS is much more thorough.

Peter Armitage said...

I disagree with Doru that the problem is that the referees are specialists. What success? PRL is on a long slow death spiral due to the declining QUALITY of refereeing and of the editorializing (these are directly correlated). Its sad to see what was formally the premier journal in physics dieing a slow death from both the competition (from the Nature group and ACS) and from the thousand cuts of bad decisions made everyday from the management.

I've heard editors complain that it is hard to get good referees, but I know prominent people who never even get asked anymore. Why? I don't know. I used to think it was some sort of weird plan to increase diversity/generality in the articles by having them refereed by people well out of the relevant field. But now I think there is just no plan. All these weird things at PRL are just the result of the review process being a mostly random walk. Some papers go to one referee. Some papers go to 3. After reply to comments, some papers go back to the same referees, some go back to one new one... or three new ones... or to only the unfavorable ones and then some new ones. All of whom may not be working in the area. Further evidence there is no plan/procedure can be seen in that some papers are rejected for being too specialized, while others have comical titles and abstracts like the one Doug showed.

The journal needs clean-out/shake-up much like PRB got recently. I like PRB and my impression is that the whole editorial chain of command is commited to publishing the best science they can in our information age. I'm not sure what PRL is trying to do.

Charles Day said...

APS recently announced the appointment of a new lead editor for PRL, U of Arizona's Pierre Meystre.

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