Tuesday, November 04, 2014

"What happened to PRL?"

A commenter wrote the following:  "About PRL, I do have a concrete question. You've been around for some time, I am new in the business. Can you explain what happened to it? Twenty years ago it used to be the journal to publish in, now it is an afterthought."

Physical Review Letters remains a premier place to publish high impact physics results in letter-format (that is, typically 4-ish page papers with around 4 figures).   I think that the recently arrived editor in chief Pierre Meystre is working hard to revitalize PRL as a "destination journal" for physics results, where you know that the primary audience comprises physicists. 

That being said, the origins of some of PRL's (possible) loss of cachet are immediately obvious.  Twenty years ago, Nature and Science were not as highly regarded within the physics community as places to publish.  Nature Publishing Group did not have all of its various progeny (Nature Physics, Nature Materials, Nature Nanotechnology, Nature Photonics being the four most relevant here).  Likewise, the American Chemical Society's journal offerings used to be a lot less friendly to physicists.  Now there are Nano Lett., ACS Nano, ACS Photonics, ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.   It's a far more competitive journal marketplace, and the Phys Rev journals have been slow to innovate.  Furthermore, I think there is a broad perception that PRL's refereeing can be long, arduous, contentious, and distressingly random.  Some of the competing journals somehow are able to be rapid and on-target in terms of the expertise of the referees.  If you have a hot result, and you think that refereeing at PRL is highly likely to take a long time and require a protracted fight with referees, other alternatives have room to make inroads. 

Somehow PRL needs to improve its reviewing reputation in terms of accuracy and timeliness.   That, I think, would be the best way to be more competitive.  That, and a re-design of their webpage redesign, which is neither particularly attractive or functional.


Sankalpa Ghosh said...

PRL is a great journal. However the comment about its referring is correct. Sometimes the referring ( possibly unavoidable) contains completely wrong comment. Now they started rejecting a large number of papers at the editorial level to improve the standard. However my experience is that this process brought more arbitrariness. Particularly there seems to be some bias towards articles coming from not so big places and big groups. Not necessarily always the editorial staff consult DAE. This process to my feeling is more random. It will be a good idea if PRL allows the author to send the paper to one of the DAE first and then only an editorial decision is taken.

Don Monroe said...

Surely the bigger reason that PRL has trouble competing with Natureandscience is that the latter convey the implication of broad importance, rather than narrow impact of interest only to specialists? I think they both started making a special effort a couple of decades to take "affirmative action" for non-biological papers. That doesn't mean that their reviewing is more rigorous or more consistent than that at PRL, however. I would have guessed the opposite was true for traditional physics papers, although PRL has a relatively shallow bench for non-physics fields.

(Disclosure: I sometimes write for the American Physical Society website Physics, which only covers APS journals like PRL.)

Massimo said...

I personally think that there is no question tha PRL continues to be far superior to all other journals, in terms of scientific content and accuracy, especially compared to its NPG competition.
Its drawback is its relatively low impact factor, and that is often an issue when dealing with university administrators, especially for tenure track faculty.
Impact factor is not a reliable measure of the accuracy, prestige and reliability of a journal, though. One can make the IF higher by simply publishing very few papers, carefully restricting the selection to subjects and authors that can garner many cites in a short time. That is what Nature Physics does, and that is what the relative newcomer PRX does too. Is that a way to promote good science? I don't think so. What we should really be doing is stop looking at IF (and tell administrators not to do it either) and give greater emphasis to the number of times papers are cited regardless or where they are published. And while we are at it, stop submitting papers to those journals and citing them. Oh, radical me...

Anonymous said...

Hi Doug,
I agree with you in terms of the refereeing process being the reason a lot of people don't try to publish in PRL anymore. I also partly agree with the first commenter that now that the editors have more power in rejecting papers without external review, it seems even more arbitrary. In this regard, I've experienced now a couple of times how the reasons for rejection at the editorial level don't seem to make sense at all. The community needs to trust these editors to make the right decisions, and I am not sure a lot of us do. On the other hand, I've had great experiences with a few of the editors in PRB, I'd definitively put these PRB editors in place of some of the PRL ones.

Anonymous said...

As I see it, the systematic problem in PRL is their different approach in trying to get manuscripts that have both "popular and signficant" and are also technically correct. The glossy mags have a scientifically literate editor who appraises the article on the first metric and some expert referees who appraise on the second.

Until very recently PRL has tried to achieve the same thing by making very few cuts at the editorial level, but by sending to professional scientists who were only marginally associated with the subject. They were trying to get a feeling for both significance and correctness simultaneously. I suppose this was some poor man's version of trying to achieve the glossy mag's same average level of competence. :) But in reality, this is a system custom designed for random and mercurial refereeing. I'm asked all the time to referee things that I have little expertise in.

My impression is that PRL is trying to move towards the glossy mag's methods, but for that you need high quality editors. I agree that a solution would be to hire PRB editors! They have some very good scientists on staff.

Douglas Natelson said...

Sankalpa and RVA, it's certainly true that if you are going to switch to the model where editors have real power to cull before review, you need to be sure that there are clear criteria and people with good "taste" making the decisions.

Don, I agree that general audience-friendly papers are more likely to be pitched to the glossy journals. However, over the course of my career there has been enormous inflation of the apparent importance of Natureandscience (to use your portmanteau) in hiring and career advancement. Somehow, there is a perception by some administrative types that those papers are more important than PRL to physicists or JACS to chemists, and I really don't know why.

Massimo, I've long said that impact factor is a bad metric that is dominated by outliers.

Anon@5:02, I think your diagnosis is closest to my own (not seated in any kind of solid information) conclusions.

Andrew said...

I think the importance of Nature and Science is purely just their relatively small number of papers. In hiring, a scarce resource (faculty slots) are allocated to a large number of applicants, many of who are qualified. A scarce resource (natureandscience) is an easy proxy for admins to point to and say "they have this, others don't". PRX has made inroads precisely because they only publish a few papers.

In many ways, publishing is more about getting a gold star than information dissemination these days. I read almost everything I want on the arXiv -- yes, there's not peer review, but I'm not sure the average peer review adds that much. For the most part, people publish not to attract an audience, but to get a feather in their cap that they can use to get more funding, internal support, jobs for students and postdocs, or prizes.

What we need is not necessarily better journals. We need a better way to indicate on a short time scale (for hiring purposes) what we as a community view as good work. As it stands now, we've ceded that authority to the editors of natureandscience.

Peter Armitage said...

Andrew wrote:
>What we need is not necessarily
>better journals. We need a better
>way to indicate on a short time
>scale (for hiring purposes) what we
>as a community view as good work.
>As it stands now, we've ceded that >authority to the editors of

This is exactly the crux of the problem. Letters of reference do this to some extent, but they are biased. How could this be done in a crowd sourced fashion?

Anonymous said...

Interestingly one of my first year PhD students said to me after another weekly journal club:
"Why is it that all the baby Nature papers we have covered this year are wrong" (or at least not very convincing on closer examination)?

I know of several papers in the baby Natures that are demonstrably (few line proof) wrong. This seems to happen less often with PRL.

So the impact factor may be lower for PRL, but in my mind the impact of work in PRL is higher.

Anonymous said...

(on the other hand the quality of the editorial process, and guidance to referees could be improved.

Also PRL is rather parochial - pretty average work from well known US groups sometimes fares better than excellent work from outside the USA. The review process is also far too slow. The editors have long heard these complaints, and their competitors are capitalizing on the lack of action from PRL).

Anonymous said...

Until very recently PRL has tried to achieve the same thing by making very few cuts at the editorial level, but by sending to professional scientists who were only marginally associated with the subject. They were trying to get a feeling for both significance and correctness simultaneously.

So I thought that the surreally-bizarre referee reports I often get from PRL were just a result of a poor selection of referees. It's news to me that this is actually a deliberate policy!

xykademiqz said...

There are a number of fields where a lot of action is happening (e.g. materials science, much of nanoscience, device physics, large-scale simulation in condensed matter and materials science) that would simply not get the time of day in PRL because they are "too applied" or "not of broad interest" or "not enough significant new physics." PRL tends to favor traditional physics, so newer areas have moved to Nano Lett, APL, ACS Nano, or Nature Progeny. For instance, much work on van der Waals materials or graphene photonics/plasmonics, all hot areas now, would not fare well at all at PRL.

I love PRL dearly and I review for them and for PRB all the time. But they are not the place for hot modern topics, and the refereeing process is both slow and appears somewhat random (for instance, I have never received reviews from APL that were from someone who wasn't in the field; in PRL it happened plenty of time that the person did not understand what was being done. Also happened when I review -- I think the work is awesome but needs to be touched up for presentation, the other referee completely misses the point of the paper.)

I will second what someone said above -- PRB has improved in recent years, and there are a number of excellent editors in PRB these days, so the review process is smoother, to the point, and faster than ever. Kudos to PRB!