I had that somewhat rare experience two days ago, getting the message from Physical Review Letters that our paper had finally been published online. In our field it can take quite a long time to get a paper all the way to publication; this one took longer than usual…
The paper describes the results of our search for Higgs bosons predicted in supersymmetric theories, in the CDF experiment at Fermilab. Alas, we didn’t see any evidence for Higgs boson production, despite earlier hints that something might lurk in our sample, and so we were able to rule out some regions of supersymmetric parameter space. We first obtained a preliminary result from this analysis in late 2007. A group of us from Rutgers University, University of Valencia, and UC Davis all worked directly on it, within our several-hundred-member collaboration, using Tevatron data recorded up through mid-2007. Since then we’ve more than tripled our data sample, but this result stuck with the data sample on which it was based and has finally reached publication.
The analysis was the topic of the Ph.D. thesis of my student Cris Cuenca, who was formally a student of my former postdoc Juan Valls at University of Valencia. Cris was a visitor in our group at UC Davis, and I was effectively his thesis advisor. After we got the preliminary results, Cris focused on writing his thesis, eventually defending it in Valencia in April 2008. One nice effect of that was that I got to visit Valencia for the first time: what a fantastic city!
Once the thesis was done, it was clear we needed to publish the result formally. In fact, we should have been already writing the paper but as usual it’s hard to find time to get started on writing projects. Here is a place we could have saved some time, though…
Anyway, I wrote a draft after the birth of our son Ian in June 2008, while helping with baby care at home. In our collaboration there is a very formal review process before submitting a paper for publication. The spokespeople of the collaboration “godparents” who perform a full internal review of the analysis and the draft of the paper. Without naming names, we got some very knowledgeable godparents who asked us hard questions. Some of these questions took weeks to answer, because more data analysis had to be performed. And some of them led to even more questions. This review process is a good thing — it ensures that the quality of the final paper is very high, and that the result is correct to the best of our ability. In fact, in the course of the review process we found that there was a minor software bug, and we repeated the full end stage of the analysis. As it turned out, the bug had very little effect on the final result but we needed to be sure. (At present there are only unknown bugs in the analysis software!)
Whenever there is a change to an analysis like this, it needs to be re-approved in our physics analysis group meetings, with two presentations: a “pre-blessing”, and then a “blessing” two weeks later. (Hey, I’m not responsible for the pseudo-religious jargon used in this process…) This eventually happened in March 2008.
With the result final and the godparents happy with the paper draft, it was time for the general collaboration review. The collaboration gets two weeks to comment on each draft. Then the authors go through comment by comment and reply to the commenters, modifying the draft as needed. The godparents reviewed our replies and then we arrive at the next draft. This part of the process can take many weeks depending on how much time the authors have two devote to the paper. Once the final draft stage is reached, a “paper reading” is scheduled at the weekly general collaboration meeting. Following the presentation of the result, the collaboration has 48 hours before the paper is submitted to the journal. For us this happened, finally, in June of this year.
We heard back from PRL in late July, with blind referee comments to address. There then ensued a back-and-forth between us and the referees, answering questions, making changes to our submission, and eventually reaching agreement that the paper would be published in PRL. This happened a few weeks ago, and our paper has now appeared in what I think is still considered to be the most prestigious journal in our field, though Nature possibly tops it. (That might inspire a comment flame war but I hope not…)
Maybe this is an extreme example, and I certainly will endeavor to bring results to publication much more quickly in the future. (I always say that.) Certain results, if they are “hot”, can be published on a fast track in CDF, within weeks, but that is quite rare.
Many will, no doubt, argue that print media of almost every form is on the way out. Will this happen to print science journals? I do think there is a strong need for blindly refereed publication of scientific results, even though many scientists have reviewed these papers by the time they are submitted.
And clearly once the LHC experiments have physics results to publish, we will need a very rapid means of getting them into print. For any striking new discovery we’ll want to have a paper submitted for publication when we announce the result…this is in contrast to the case of not-very-striking results, where we announce the results at conferences first and publish later. The reason is that the experiments will try to establish scientific priority by publishing striking results before the other one does, but I have to wonder, in the modern age of electronic media and collaborations with thousands of members, whether simply announcing or presenting the the result in public doesn’t accomplish that anyway. If ATLAS says they see a resonance in muon pairs at 1.5 TeV mass and so does CMS, the same week, will we really say “ATLAS found it first” or “ATLAS was the one to discover it and CDF confirmed it?” I hope the science mainstream media don’t present such a thing that way…but more than that I just hope this is a problem we will actually face!