Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Why the system is broken

"The above manuscript has been reviewed by our referee(s). A critique drawn from the report(s) is enclosed. On this basis, we judge that while the work probably warrants publication in some form, it does not meet the special criteria of importance and broad interest required for Physical Review Letters. In accordance with our standard practice (see enclosed memo), this concludes our review of your manuscript."

So begins the e-mail I received early this afternoon. This is the second time my manuscript was returned to me, saying it did not warrant publication in PRL. Why? Because the referees said so. But let's take a moment, shall we?

  1. Referee A states that, despite the fact I've previously answered all of his questions, he is still unconvinced that our experiment makes any difference to novae and x-ray burst nucleosynthesis. He instead points me to a disgusting, 30-page ApJ Supplement (yes, that's right, the "source" that he argues I haven't considered is a "supplement"), saying that, because the authors don't specifically mention the reaction I studied, it must not be important [it is worthwhile to note that the ApJ had this to say: "Several important remarks have to be made at this stage: First, we have chosen a factor of 10 for the level of uncertainty affecting theoretical reaction rate estimates, in general. Other authors (see Schatz 2006; Amthor et al. 2006) claim, instead, that excitation energies of theoretically calculated levels for XRB conditions may suffer uncertainties of ~100 keV, which translates into an overall uncertainty in some rates that may reach several orders of magnitude" - in other words, they arbitrarily picked a factor of ten, but it may not be correct. Additionally, the ApJ is only pertinent to one type of x-ray burst only, and a multitude of reactions are left out of their "comprehensive" study]. He either ignores or refuses to read my pages of notes or peruse any of the references I included, many of which are by prominent physicists (M. Wiescher, for instance, as well as one of the coauthors on the ApJ) who, on the whole, say exactly the opposite of what he argues. I cite 26 separate articles and proceedings which state that the reaction I studied is important; because I didn't cite the aforementioned ApJ (on which the referee is most likely an author), I don't get to be published in PRL. What kind of person demands that my experimental results be in line with a non-mainstream theory paper in order to be published? What kind of strange science rule is that? Our network calculations show that the result could cause a 60% increase in the reaction rate, and a reduction in the uncertainties of final isotopic abundances by orders of magnitude, both in novae and in x-ray bursts; a multitude of papers mention the importance of the reaction in isotope production and energy generation in explosive astrophysical events; this is the FIRST TIME EVER that this reaction has been measured experimentally, the culmination of over a decade of work; yet the referee states that there is no "hard evidence" to support our claims, and that, because "There is not a single mention in Parikh et al. [yes, that's right, the worthless paper on theory which so obviously trumps actual experimental results] that changes in the... reaction rate have any effect..." he feels that our work is inconsequential.
  2. Referee B acknowledges that "A decision on the special criteria [of PRL publication] is of course a subjective view and it may be that my interpretation is rather harsh compared to others." The referee continues, "In addition, this choice is partly an editorial issue, since it reflects the Journal's position with regard to which research areas are currently fashionable (I note the author's comments on recent selection of papers in this area for publication in PRL). If the other referees or the editor have a contrary view, I would be happy to accept this." Directly subsequent to this gem of insight, however, the referee demands that I explain in such great detail every aspect of my calculation, that there is no conceivable way it could fit into PRL's mandated four-page length. They are "Letters," meant to be an overview, meant to be followed later with a more in-depth, longer paper in one of the other Physical Reviews. Everyone knows this. I understand if excellence is required, but for a PRL to be exhaustive is an unreasonable demand.
  3. Referee C recommends publication in PRL. Has, in fact, for both my original and my revised submissions. But two referee approvals are required, and apparently we have one and a half.

Science has become far too much a forum of politics. We do science in order to discover the mysteries of the universe, and to share our discoveries with others. Too bad that now, your publication history depends more on luck than on work. Despite the experiment being enough for a Ph.D. thesis and taking years of preparation on the part of the scientists involved as well as the facility's technical staff, despite the work prompting invited talks and job offers, despite the hours spent doing tedious calculations with as many models as possible to prove that - as stated in the manuscript - our result has a tremendous potential to affect the state of the field of nuclear astrophysics, despite all this, we can't publish in PRL. I am not merely ranting because I am upset that my manuscript "didn't cut it;" ask any scientist whether or not publication has become a game of chance and politics as much as science. I invite anyone interested to read my manuscript and Referee A's complaints, and still maintain that Referee A is being fair and unbiased. It is not just me.

So, dear editors and referees of the Physical Review Letters:
Why do politics and popularity matter in science? Why does a set of simulations based on some theoretical reaction network outweigh a striking experimental result? Why are referees not screened for conflict of interest?
Your journal is an important voice in the scientific community, an avenue by which the newest and neatest of scientific discoveries are heard. But it has become too mired down in issues which should never pertain to science, and for that, we all suffer.

This is a call to arms! Science must work if non-scientists are to trust us, if we are to achieve anything, if future generations of scientists are to emerge.

1 comment:

  1. Kelly, this is where science and opions get messed up. This is where bad religion get started. If I wanted an opion, I go to an opion page in the newspaper or to a friend. If I wanted to get a science fact, I go to a book or article with facts in them without personal opions in them. It is not good that you are having trouble publishing your paper. And you are in good company with Gallelo who wrote about the Earth is round and had to recant because his authorities would not listen because unsounded religion got in the way. I suggest that you read some of William Pollard's papers when you have time. They are in the church library.


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