Last Week’s Hype

When looking at the nonsense spread around the media by this week’s university press-release-driven hype about string field theory “explaining quantum mechanics”, I realized that maybe I shouldn’t have ignored last week’s university press-release-driven hype, which was about the multiverse “explaining quantum mechanics”. For that one the press release is New quantum theory is out of this parallel world and the paper is here. It has generated all sorts of press stories, with a typical example Parallel Universes Exist – And Could Explain All Physics, Says Griffith University Study.

Sharing the credit or blame for this with the Griffith University press office is the APS and its Physical Review X, which published the paper here. The APS Editor in Chief explains here that

In recent years, however, we have seen a strong need of some researchers to have their best scientific contributions published in highly selective and small journals that can disseminate those contributions broadly and offer them high visibility.

The idea seems to be that if you want “high visibility”, and you’ve got $1700 to pay for it, Physical Review X is there to get you into the media. They seem to have realized though that maybe the “parallel worlds explain quantum mechanics” might be seen as going too far, so have put out an editorial justifying its publication.

Last Updated on

This entry was posted in This Week's Hype. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Last Week’s Hype

  1. Matt Leifer says:

    Your criticism of PRX seems a little bit harsh to me. The APS have decided to adopt PRL-like standards for PRX. This has resulted in PRX getting a higher impact factor than PRL in the last couple of years. The 2014 numbers are:

    PRX: 8.385
    PRL: 7.728

    To me, it can only be a good thing that the top ranked journal in physics is no longer one with a ridiculous page limit. Hopefully, the most important papers in physics will now be easier to read and better explained.

    Of course, the APS does media promotion for articles published in all of its journals, and it should be no surprise that they put more effort into this for their top titles like PRX and PRL. Science journalists are also aware that these are the top journals, so they pay more attention to stuff that appears in them. It should also be no surprise that they are liable to pick up on anything that mentions parallel words or the multiverse. You can’t blame the APS for the fact that this paper got more attention than other things that appeared in the same journal.

    PRX is not a journal that the APS have set up just to be a fast track into the media for a fee. It is simply a that adopts PRL-like standards, and hence gets more media attention, that also happens to be gold open-access. We can argue about the merits of gold, author-pays, open access, and we can argue about whether this particular paper ought to have been published in PRX. We might even find ourselves agreeing on these issues to some extent, but to lambast PRX over this one paper seems a bit of a stretch. The impace factors speak for themselves. Physicists are paying attention to what appears in this journal, and I don’t think they are being swayed by what gets media attention.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Matt,
    Thanks. Perhaps you’re right that I’m being somewhat unfair. I do think though this shows the danger of where you can end up if you emphasize “high visibility” and have an “institution pays” model. If I were an author who publishes in PRX I’d be kind of unhappy to see this stunt, and I wonder if the editor is hearing about it.

  3. Neil says:

    I love that they are invoking Feynman. I can well imagine what he would think of this.

  4. Maurice Carid says:

    Hi Peter,
    implicitly you call their paper “nonsense”,
    can u tell us why u think so?
    You yourself expressed unease with the
    foundations of QM, so what’s wrong when these guys
    make a proposal to clarify them on the level
    of new physics rather than philosophy?
    I found the paper’s arguments quite sound
    on a technical level, and
    their theory clearly can be tested
    against experiment (for a finite
    number of worlds). Also, what exactly
    is wrong on a technical level with the press
    releases? To me it seems that they give
    a fair popular account of the paper and make
    no other exaggerated claims.
    cheers Maurice

  5. Bernd says:

    I’ve heard that PRX is burning money at a crazy rate because they’re not publishing enough papers to meet their costs, so expanding their mission to fringier stuff might be a step to generate more income.

    And if the editorial tells us anything, it’s that they’re not following PRL standards as PRL would not publish a manuscript that merely contained “new ways of looking at things”.

  6. Als says:

    I think you’re being unfair. The press misleading titles are annoying, but the article itself is fine.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Maurice/Als,
    I’ve already wasted more time on this than is wise.

  8. Shantanu says:

    I am afraid standards of PRL have also gone down. I don’t understand
    why PRL still publishes upper limit papers (for experimental papers).

  9. Narad says:

    I’ve heard that PRX is burning money at a crazy rate because they’re not publishing enough papers to meet their costs, so expanding their mission to fringier stuff might be a step to generate more income.

    It is unclear to me how well such a strategy would advance the stated goal of “diversify[ing] the Journals’ revenue stream” in the long run.

  10. upper limit says:

    Why shouldn’t PRL publish papers establishing upper limits, for example for the neutron electric dipole moment?

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Narad,
    That document makes clear the issue here. It points out
    “APS rejects ~18,000 articles each year. At $1500 each, this is a tempting potential revenue stream of $27,000,000”
    It goes to on to emphasize commitment to high standards. The problem is though that from the APS point of view accepting rejected papers and collecting $1500 for them IS tempting, and the collision of hard cash and intellectual standards isn’t always going to leave intellectual standards coming out on top.

  12. Narad says:

    The problem is though that from the APS point of view accepting rejected papers and collecting $1500 for them IS tempting, and the collision of hard cash and intellectual standards isn’t always going to leave intellectual standards coming out on top.

    Sure, but I don’t think that turning into, say, Medical Hypotheses would work in the long run, especially with a shiny 8.463 IF at stake. It doesn’t even seem to be a case of the “portable peer review” that Springer was using to auto-shunt rejections into its OA operation, even if that was an idea for PRX in the early stage (as well as perhaps competing with NJP, an idea I’ve seen floated).

    Then again, there’s no accepted date on Hall et al. (and that $1700 isn’t buying competent typesetting, given Eq. [25] in the PDF, but perhaps PRL is just as bad). There is the October 9 “PRX Takes on a New Role” announcement, though. Time will tell.

  13. srp says:

    The strategy problem for an author-pays journal with high initial prestige is analogous to that facing luxury product brands such as Hermes or Fendi. Such a brand is usually prestigious partly because it is somewhat exclusive. But a successful brand of this type always faces the temptation to make a short-term killing by surging production and reaping large margins on those sales until the market realizes that exclusivity has disappeared. After making this killing, though, the brand’s prestige drops very low and it may have to lie fallow for a long time before it can be rebuilt. That’s pretty much the story of Cartier. (Actually this can happen in the mid-market, too. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Izod became a cultural phenomenon with the publication of The Preppy Handbook, and they responded by putting that crocodile logo on a flood of product that cascaded into down-market channels.)

    Could APS play this game?

Comments are closed.