Any large collaboration like ATLAS needs a process for allowing members to communicate their work to each other and to the public. There have been some recent questions about how this process works, so I’m going to address the topic in this post.
We particle physicists are a bit unusual, though not unique, among scientific disciplines in that our authors sign official papers in alphabetical order as opposed to being ranked by how much they contributed to the work. We are also famous for our long author lists, which for the large LHC experiments include up to a few thousand people since all members of the collaboration sign each paper unless individuals request that their names be removed.
There has been some debate in the field about whether our author lists should be more exclusive and include only those people who worked directly on the physics analysis being published. I have always appreciated the lack of squabbling over author lists and the way our inclusive list gives a nod to the fact that our detector is incredibly complex and could only be built, maintained and interpreted for physics results with a large team. There are also many people who have contributed to the upstream work of an analysis, which makes the final result possible. The counter-argument is that it is nearly impossible for people outside the field to know who did the actual analysis work for any particular result. I think that people inside the field can usually find out who did what, even at other experiments, pretty easily by seeing who gives the related talks at the conferences and from reference letters within the collaboration, and even just by asking around.
Regardless of where you come down on the author list debate, the fact that our author list is currently the entire collaboration puts a burden on our result approval process in that every author needs to be given the opportunity to comment on every result he/she will sign.
Before we worry about communicating our results to the world, we need to have a mechanism to communicate our work in real time to each other within the collaboration. This allows us to scrutinize the steps as they are taken so we know that we are building a solid analysis. We achieve that by giving presentations at meetings and writing emails, but we communicate probably most efficiently by writing notes to each other to document snapshots of the early stages of an analysis. This documentation can have a much smaller list of authors who are responsible for the specific set of ideas presented. Documents like this are simply labeled “COM” for “communication,” and they are not intended for public consumption. Any ATLAS member can write a COM note at any time, and people do not necessarily put the names of all of the people on which their work relies on the author list.
If you want your work to move toward official internal ATLAS approval, you can request that it be given the status “INT” for “internal”. At this point leaders of the relevant physics group appoint reviewers, and the authors have a chance to get feedback in a formal way from other collaboration members. A note that has gained INT status has undergone at least some peer review, though it stays internal to the collaboration. The content of the INT note is often too technical for general public interest, but can be invaluable for other ATLAS collaborators who want to either reproduce a result or take the analysis to the next step with a good understanding of everything that has come before.
Some COM-notes can also become public (i.e. available to everyone on the planet). Together with published papers, these public notes report the scientific output of the experiment. In order for the result to take the final step to become public, an editorial board is appointed, and often a new note is written (starting as a COM note) with an attempt to remove ATLAS-specific jargon and details that people outside the collaboration would not necessarily find useful. With the help of the editorial board, the note is brought to a stage where it is ready to receive feedback from the entire collaboration. If the note is approved by the collaboration it will be posted to an archive that is available to the public, submitted for publication and/or the results will be shown at conferences.
There are, of course, many details that I haven’t described, but the end result is that an analysis that has been publicly approved by ATLAS will have come under scrutiny at many stages of the process. People work very hard to make sure that the results presented to the public are worthy of being signed by the collaboration. Our goal is to work as a team as quickly as we can to get these results out to the rest of the world while at the same time ensuring that we have not made mistakes. Our scientific reputation is on the line.