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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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It’s clever, but is it peer review?

First off, happy holidays to all of our US LHC blog readers. We are finishing off a fabulous 2010 and expect only more exciting times in 2011. There are a lot of mysteries about the year ahead. What will be the center of mass energy of the LHC when the machine starts again in February? How much data will the experiments record? Will it be enough data to say anything about the infamously long-awaited Higgs boson? Or will we discover something totally unexpected? Watch this space to find out.

Now, here is something I’ve been wondering about lately. When I have submitted papers to journals for publication, or worked closely with people who have made submissions, I’ve had to wait a pretty long time, sometimes months, between submission and acceptance by the journal editors. There is some editorial process up front, then the paper has to go to reviewers, who need some time to read it and make thoughtful comments and suggestions (which are typically helpful for improving the paper), and then the authors make revisions before acceptance.

But things have been a little different around the LHC lately. Consider the CERN press release announcing the observation of jet quenching in heavy-ion collisions:

This result is reported in a paper from the ATLAS collaboration accepted for publication yesterday in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters.

The press release is dated November 26. If you and look at the paper in PRL, you can see that the paper was received by the journal on November 25. So in fact the paper was accepted on the very same day that it was submitted.

LHC results have been making it through to publication pretty quickly. The jet-quenching observation was pretty dramatic, for sure, but consider the still significant but less dramatic first measurement of the top-antitop cross section at the LHC, from CMS. This paper made it from submission to acceptance in under a month, including a revision iteration. So what is going on here?

Nothing too crazy, actually. First, journal editors are certainly allowed to waive the usual rules for something that is truly important and timely. The editors of course have the expertise to make their own judgment about the topic described and the quality of the work, and in the case of jet quenching, made the very reasonable decision to publish the result right away. For other papers that still seem to be making it through pretty quickly, I would have to figure that many parties are motivated to get LHC results out. These measurements really are groundbreaking; we haven’t had such a sudden jump in our particle-physics capabilities in a generation. Thus, editors are inclined to process papers promptly, reviewers are inclined to read them quickly, and authors are inclined to make revisions just as soon as they can. It’s good that everyone is so excited about this work. (I suppose another possibility is that my own experience is totally atypical and the rest of the world gets their papers accepted in under a month. I never claimed to write great papers.)

And then one might ask — can one do quality editing and peer review in such a short amount of time? I would be inclined to say yes. Let’s remember that the measurements and the written papers go through an incredible amount of scrutiny within the collaborations before they are submitted to a journal. In CMS, for example, a paper goes through three layers of review (maybe four, depending on how you count) before it is submitted. Tens if not hundreds of (pairs of) eyes have looked at it already, and it is pretty unlikely that any huge mistakes are going to be missed. I believe that the journals are already receiving a quality product as input. And then external review can be done pretty quickly if the reviewers have a moment to focus on it; they are experts in the field, and can understand a paper fairly quickly. This all makes it possible for the latest results to get into your hands promptly.

I should note that these blog posts aren’t peer-reviewed at all. This one will get into your hands just as soon as I click on that button on the right side of my Web page.

  • Raincloud

    Nice blog on reviews! From what i have heard and seen it is normal for a paper to take months to be reviwed, so i was also wondering how this works. But then the actual work in the review process is probably not more than a few days.

    What made me laugth: “all comments must be approved […]” so your blog is not reviwed but my comment is!

  • Emanuel

    It makes me wonder, actually, how magazines choose reviewers. I would imagine they don’t send the papers out to just anyone, and finding out who the experts are is probably not something they’d want to do more than every once in a while. So they probably send all papers in a particular field (which can be very narrow, of course) to the same set of reviewers, who then put the papers on a queue to read through in their spare time. If the paper is from someone they don’t know or don’t know well, it will be added to the back of the queue – but if it’s from a personal friend or an important collaboration like the LHC, they’ll probably move it up and read it right away 🙂

  • Curious

    It’s very plausible for a peer review process to finish in one month. It is impossible for it to finish within a day, however, and still maintain any credibility. Honestly, if you hear back from a journal with an acceptance note after just one day, you ought to consider withdrawing your submission and sending it to another journal just to teach them a lesson.

  • I suppose peer reviews will always take time. I believe that the time taken is more of a human factor rather than a process problem. I’ll bet reviewers like to leave documents on their desks to “cure” for a while before they actually get down to it. I suppose good things do take time to complete. As “Curious” says, a peer review that is done within a day isn’t really worth much.

    Anyway, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all!


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