Guest Post: Terry Rudolph on Nature versus Nurture

By Sean Carroll | August 27, 2012 1:07 pm

Everyone always wants to know whether the wave function of quantum mechanics is “a real thing” or whether it’s just a tool we use to calculate the probability of measuring a certain outcome. Here at CV, we even hosted a give-and-take on the issue between instrumentalist Tom Banks and realist David Wallace. In the latter post, I linked to recent preprint on the issue that proved a very interesting theorem, seemingly boosting the “wave functions are real” side of the debate.

That preprint was submitted to Nature, but never made it in (although it did ultimately get published in Nature Physics). The story of why such an important result was shunted away from the journal to which it was first submitted (just like Peter Higgs’s paper where he first mentioned the Higgs boson!) is interesting in its own right. Here is that story, as told by Terry Rudolph, an author of the original paper. Terry is a theoretical physicist at Imperial College London, who “will work on anything that has the word `quantum’ in front of it.”

————————

There has long been a tension between the academic publishing process, which is slow but which is still the method by which we certify research quality, and the ability to instantaneously make one’s research available on a preprint server such as the arxiv, which carries essentially no such certification whatsoever. It is a curious (though purely empirical) observation that the more theoretical and abstract the field the more likely it is that the all-important question of priority – when the research is deemed to have been time-stamped as it were – will be determined by when the paper first appeared on the internet and not when it was first submitted to, or accepted by, a journal. There are no rules about this, it’s simply a matter of community acceptance.

At the high-end of academic publishing, where papers are accepted from extremely diverse scientific communities, prestigious journals need to filter by more than simply the technical quality of the research – they also want high impact papers of such broad and general interest that they will capture attention across ranges of scientific endeavour and often the more general public as well. For this reason it is necessary they exercise considerably more editorial discretion in what they publish.

Topics such as hurdling editors and whether posting one’s paper in preprint form impacts negatively the chances of it being accepted at a high-end journal are therefore grist for the mill of conversation at most conference dinners. In fact the policies at Nature about preprints have evolved considerably over the last 10 years, and officially they now say posting preprints is fine. But is it? And is there more to editorial discretion than the most obvious first hurdle – namely getting the editor to send the paper to referees at all? If you’re a young scientist without experience of publishing in such journals (I am unfortunately only one of the two!) perhaps the following case study will give you some pause for thought.

Last November my co-authors and I bowed to some pressure from colleagues to put our paper, then titled The quantum state cannot be interpreted statistically, on the arxiv. We had recently already submitted it to Nature because new theorems in the foundations of quantum theory are very rare, and because the quantum state is an object that cuts across physics, chemistry and biology – so it seemed appropriate for a broad readership. Because I had heard stories about the dangers of posting preprints so many times I wrote the editor to verify it really was ok. We were told to go ahead, but not to actively participate in or solicit pre-publication promotion or media coverage; however discussing with our peers, presenting at conferences etc was fine.

Based on the preprint Nature themselves published a somewhat overhyped pop-sci article shortly thereafter; to no avail I asked the journalist concerned to hold off until the status of the paper was known. We tried to stay out of the ensuing fracas – is discussing your paper on blogs a discussion between your peers or public promotion of the work?

In December the three referee reports came back. Two were very positive and comprehensive (one was longer than the paper!), and the negative one was just silly. The editor chose to ignore the negative one, and we were happy to be told

Your manuscript entitled “The quantum state cannot be interpreted statistically” has now been seen by our referees, and in the light of their advice (enclosed below) I am delighted to say that we can in principle offer to publish it.

We then began to revise the paper considerably along the lines suggested by the referees, something clearly necessary given the multiple misinterpretations of the result we had encountered.

Now the fun started. As this revision was ongoing, two of us submitted a preprint to the arxiv with another of our students, a paper with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek contrary title: The quantum state can be interpreted statistically. Later I will explain a bit more carefully the relation between the physics of the two papers. For the moment I will outline the unexpected connection in the publishing process.

A few weeks later we resubmitted the first paper – the revised version explained the result much more along the lines of Matt Leifer’s discussion. It was sent back to the two referees who had been positive, and they opined

The Authors made all the changes I recommended. The letter now reads really nicely. I am thus happy to support publication in Nature of this nice letter.

and

I think the paper is substantially improved, more accessible both to the general reader and to the expert on hidden-variable models for quantum mechanics. In particular, the key assumptions, that there is an [sic] state-related ontology underneath quantum mechanics and preparation independence, are laid out more clearly, and this is a major improvement.

We were therefore somewhat bemused that the editor decided:

While we appreciate that the new paper does not invalidate the results of your Nature submission, we feel that it nevertheless significantly reduces its impact. In a way, the Nature paper only tells one side of the story – its central claim is no longer true if one of the key assumptions is dropped. The discussion that the papers have generated within the community leave us in no doubt as to their value for specialists; however, there is no longer in our view a compelling reason to publish the original study in Nature.

Let me briefly explain the interesting science that lies at the heart of the “key assumption” the editor is alluding to in the above. I will call this assumption preparation independence.

Suppose an experiment at one lab reproduces the results of an earlier experiment at another. This would righty be called an “independent” verification of the first lab’s results. No scientist would attempt to refute this by appealing to correlations between random events at the two labs, there being no realistic mechanism for such to be established. Even in a single lab, repeated runs of an experiment must be assumed independent in order to estimate probabilities based on the results. Preparation independence is simply the assumption that we have the ability to build independent, uncorrelated experimental apparatuses to act as preparation devices of microscopic systems, and that any deeper theory of nature than quantum theory will not overthrow this principle by virtue of “hidden super-correlations” where to date scientists have always successfully assumed there are none.

The theorem we prove – that quantum states cannot be understood as merely lack of knowledge of an underlying deeper reality described by some as yet undiscovered deeper theory – assumes preparation independence. It is an important insight that this assumption is necessary for the theorem, and the point of our second paper was to show this explicitly. That second paper is, however, simply making a mathematical/logical point – it is not a serious proposal for how the physical world operates.

We are in a similar position with Bell’s theorem, which I consider the most important insight into the nature of physical reality of the last century, an honour for which there are some serious competitors! That theorem relies on a presumed ability to make independent choices of measurements at separated locations. Denial of such is the “super-determinism” loophole, and while intelligent people can and do consider its plausibility, and while it is an important insight into Bell’s theorem that this assumption is necessary, the jury is still out (‘t Hoofts efforts notwithstanding) as to whether a super-deterministic theory agreeing with all experiments to date can even be constructed, never mind be a plausible theory of nature.

Denial of preparation independence or invocation of super-determinism throws into question the basic methods of all science carried out to date. Most physicists would, I believe, consider the “cure” (extremely convoluted correlations between seemingly unrelated events leading to a conspiratorial interpretation of the nature of reality) worse than the “disease” (non-locality in the case of Bell’s theorem, the reality of the quantum state in the case of ours). If our theorem fails because the assumption of preparation independence fails, it is a far more amazing insight into nature than the theorem itself provides.

So of course we responded to the editor, making these points. But after another two weeks of consideration (that I presume involved conversations with experts, but we were never made privy to them) the editor confirmed that they still felt the second paper lessened the impact of the first, and that the paper was only suited to a more specialist journal.

However, they also said:

Moreover, from an editorial viewpoint, we find it hard to see what publication of the paper in Nature would achieve at this stage (we cannot help but feel that its timeliness and impact are now considerably reduced, as it has already been debated widely within the community).

Put simply, the buzz matters – this objection by the editor would not have arisen had we not posted to the arxiv.

While it mildly rankles that my own participation in that “wide debate” was curbed by the blurry lines of their own policies, I’m not particularly upset by the episode – perhaps indicative of my well documented own laissez-faire attitude to publishing, but perhaps because I know the result is ultimately more important than the journal it appears in.

But one thing is for sure – every single paper published in Nature this year will implicitly be making an assumption that independent preparations and independent verification of experiments are possible. The authors of those papers will have been smart enough not to explicitly say so!

(By the way, the paper appears now in Nature Physics and has been the subject of a second news article by Nature!).

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Where was the second paper eventually published?

  • http://www.sunclipse.org Blake Stacey

    The second paper is, to my knowledge, only on the arXiv so far (1201.6554 [quant-ph]). The bibliography of Schlosshauer and Fine’s Physical Review Letters 108, 260404 (2012) has relevant pointers.

    I have much more to write on this point, but this blog comment box is to narrow to contain it.

  • http://mattleifer.info Matt Leifer

    I hope the second paper is going to Nature Physics or PRL, since that will set a good precedent for papers on this subject that I hope to cash in on (see tomorrow’s quant-ph listing).

    Nature’s extremely bizarre editorial decisions regarding the PBR paper are almost enough to make me not want to ever submit a paper to the journal (of course, my attitude may change if I ever obtain a result that would actually stand a chance of getting published in it). The worst part is the fact that the paper was rejected after it had already been accepted, which can only be described as bungling of the highest order, and is something that should never happen unless the paper is actually wrong and needs to be retracted. However, a deeper problem is that Nature’s embargo policy, especially in its current more lenient version, makes absolutely no sense.

    Now, I don’t like embargoes at the best of times. If a result is known about in the community then people are going to talk about it in public forums, and if people are going to do that then it is far better that the people responsible for those results are able to join the debate. If you disallow that, then one of the most important voices is missing from the debate. However, if you are going to have an embargo, then it is far better to have a fully enforced one where the paper does not appear anywhere before publication, since that it only going to encourage debates that the authors can’t take part in. They will happen anyway, so the embargo is silly in the first place, but why add fuel to the fire? Furthermore, if the result attracts a large amount of media attention prior to publication then it is absolutely batsh*t crazy to ban the authors from commenting on their own work, especially if the media attention comes from your own magazine. (I know about the editorial wall between Nature the magazine and Nature the peer reviewed journal. This explains why the present situation happened, but doesn’t actually make it any less crazy). People aren’t going to pay any attention when the authors comment at a later date after publication because the media cycle is too short for that. In summary, if you are going to have an embargo then you should do it properly, although you’re better of consigning the whole idea to the trashbin of history.

    One aspect of this situation that affected me directly, was that, for a while, much of the science media regarded me as a primary source for commentary on this result. Whilst it is nice to have the attention, I was unfortunately too ill to fulfil many of the requests. Those that I did, however, were quite weird for me because I felt that I was simply explaining exactly what Terry and Jon would have said about their result, and that there was no benefit to having me do this rather than the authors. After all, I know Terry and Jon pretty well, and there is considerable overlap between between our views on quantum theory. This shows another stupid aspect of the Nature policy. If you are going to tell the authors to shut up then you had better tell all their friends to shut up as well, otherwise the whole exercise is pointless. You may say that I should have had the sense to shut up anyway, but I did not know that the paper had been submitted to Nature at the time I wrote my blog post, and I was mainly responding to other people’s blog posts about the result that I thought had badly mangled its interpretation. Mainly, I just felt bad about the fact that I was getting a lot of attention that I thought would be better off going to the authors.

  • shawn

    What I find interesting is that the editors of Nature themselves are conceding that their publication is not needed if everyone where to publish on arXiv first.

  • http://scientopia.org/blogs/galacticinteractions Rob Knop

    I for one am very glad you posted the paper to ArXiv. It meant I was able to read it. If it had shown up in Nature but not on arXiv, I wouldn’t have had access to it. And, too often, papers in Science and Nature don’t seem to be available to those of us at smaller institutions without subscriptions. As far as the progress of science goes (as opposed to collecting the feathers that tenure-judging administrations want to see on you), Nature is next to worthless while the widespread availability given by arXiv is crucial.

  • Douglas Clowe

    Our letter in 2006 on the Bullet Cluster was rejected from Nature without being sent to referees because it “wasn’t controversial enough to merit a follow up,” based on the earlier 2004 paper in ApJ on the initial detection not having gotten many citations at that point.

  • http://darkbuzz.blogspot.com/ Roger

    You claim to be ruling out an “undiscovered deeper theory”, but you really only rule out certain types of theories. Maybe the editor was fooled into thinking that your theorem was stronger than it really is.

  • Tez

    The second paper is accepted to PRL. So it might actually be published there :)

  • Pieter

    The key assumption may be so broad as to encompass all of science, but the actual phrasing by Nature is even worse: “its central claim is no longer true if one of the key assumptions is dropped” is logically equivalent to “we will not publish your paper because [tautology].”

  • Jeff Johnson

    It seems pretty clear from this tale that Nature represents the business interests of Nature magazine more than it does the interests of science. The lesson is that in the long run it is in the best interest of scientific progress to abandon publications like Nature, and to strengthen online web of trust based peer review for self published research.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    I don’t see how Nature can claim that preprint doesn’t affect the chances of publication. Unless the editors were somehow blinded to whether or not a paper had appeared in preprint (how would that even work?) then it is going to factor into their decision-making, even if subconsciously.

    It would be better for Nature to say that preprint does not explicitly count against a paper, but to be more circumspect about assuring people there is no effect.

  • Eugenie Samuel Reich

    It is true Terry Rudolph asked me not publish a news story following the release of his preprint, because of his concern that news might jeopardize the publication of the paper by Nature. As he knows, I took his concern seriously and approached the physical sciences manuscript editor at Nature about it, going ahead after I received assurances that news stories based on preprints don’t affect the review process/acceptance of papers at the journal, as long as the authors are not quoted/not actively seeking publicity, in the stories, which Terry wasn’t.

    (I looked into this not because the manuscript was at Nature — Matt Leifer is right that the news and manuscript side are run, in general, independently– but as part of the normal practice wanting to know the consequences of my reporting when someone is raising a concern that it might cause damage.)

    Beyond those assurances, I don’t have any information about the acceptance process, since this was handled separately by Nature’s manuscript side. However, I wonder if the release of a preprint by the same authors with the opposite take-home message to a paper under submission would have a rattling effect. Editors at visible journals risk being attacked for giving too much of a platform to provocative work, they are always treading a line between missing important work and being on guard against hoaxes (with examples of past failures in either direction). Although Terry says his second preprint was a technical clarification of an underlying assumption, this might appear to be entering “if…then” territory rather than putting forward a clear “take home” message and so more of a specialist discussion. In this context the sentence beginning “moreover” would be talking about the impact of the release of the second preprint and ensuing discussion on the impact of the paper, not a description of Nature’s policies regarding release of preprints that are under consideration.

    Some questions arise in my mind such as whether Terry talked to the editors about the release of the second preprint and clarified why that was a separate paper and its implications, before publicly releasing it.

    Clearly there are problems reporting when authors are not free to be quoted. Not reporting, once the preprint is in the public domain, you risk missing significant result, but without their input you may miss some context. (As a reporter, I don’t like embargoes or reporting restrictions, although often work with them.) In this case Nature news printed a second story, this time in the print news section, once the paper was published by Nature Physics, because at that point Terry et al could be quoted and the result placed in fuller context.

    (Disclosures: I’ve researched and written a good deal about failings in the review and editorial decision-making process at journals, including Nature, e.g. in my 2009 book on scientific fraud, Plastic Fantastic. I’m now currently a Contributing Correspondent to the news side at Nature. I’m not involved in manuscript decisions.)

  • Walter Davies

    I’d like to bring to the attention of those interested in the reality of the wave function, the recent article by Lucien Hardy arXiv 1205.1439 —if you don’t already know about it. Love your blog, Sean—and your books.

  • http://transcyberphysix.blogspot.fr/ cb

    A (french) quantum superposition state of the forgotten theoretician Louis de Broglie and the famous experimentalist Alain Aspect would probably give the following moral if it was asked to reflect on the reality of today’s scientific publication

    Ne pas interférer avec le processus de publicité de son éditeur scientifique virtuel! /
    Do not interfere with the advertising process of your virtual publisher!

    signé: le (mé)mor(i)aliste quantique anonyme

  • http://www.thehumandesign.net Marcus Morgan

    You might be interested in flipping through a plain English version of determinism, although perhaps not as you imagined it. It reconciles the diverse findings across the diverse fields of science, and uses (statistical) determinism to do so. It’s my free book, downloadable at http://www.thehumandesign.net (non-spiritual, just particles & fields in the design)

  • The ghost of reason

    hmmm…
    Apparently, the GHZ experiment is considered spam by the censors. The comment was eaten twice.

  • Pingback: ☆ On the foundations of quantum mechanics « Mostly physics()

  • http://mattleifer.info Matt Leifer

    @Eugenie Samuel Reich

    I will concede that the issue of the titles of the papers is unfortunate and probably did work against the authors. I was never a big fan of the original title of the original paper “The quantum state cannot be interpreted statistically” because it can be, and in fact was, widely misunderstood. Authors use provocative titles in order to garner attention and increase their chances of publication in the big journals. Although I am personally a fan of making titles as accurate as possible, I can’t blame the authors for choosing a provocative title as the practice is pretty common and the strategy obviously worked. Once you are in the game of having provocative titles, the title of the second paper is the obvious logical choice, so I find it hard to blame them for that little extra flourish.

    I understand that having two papers with contradictory titles is confusing. However, I would like to think that Nature chooses which papers to publish based on their actual contents, i.e. the only thing about them that actually matters, rather than on superficial things like their titles. If the first paper had not already been accepted for publication, then I may have been a little more sympathetic with the actions of the Nature editor. However, in my opinion, accepting a paper for publication should be considered a verbal contract, and if you are going to break it then it needs to be for solid scientific reasons rather than because you don’t like the author’s perhaps slightly misguided PR strategy.

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  • Eugenie Samuel Reich

    @mattleifer I didn’t mean exactly that the contrary titles were just confusing, though that is true, but that they also seem kind of flippant (it’d be in line with what Terry describes as a laissez-faire attitude to publishing). And I am not sure that manuscript editors have (maybe can afford to have) a sense of humor along these lines. I am not offering this as a defense so much as trying to illuminate from my understanding of editorial decision-making.

    The paper was published with a different title in the end, “on the reality of the wavefunction.”

    One thing that occurred to me is the result really originated through the work of the first author, who is junior, and it seems unfair for it to have been bumped to a less prominent (although still very good) venue because of misperceptions of a second paper put out by co-authors that he’s not an author on.

  • aram

    Nature’s reply explains why their entire journal is unnecessary for advancing science: we have a vibrant culture of scientific communication without them. We have to pay lip service to their role in communicating results (e.g. consider the ironically named “Rapid Communications to Physical Review”) so we can gain the endorsements that are valuable only because of their artificial scarcity. Definitely this service of allocating credentials is going to be hard to replace, though.

  • Pingback: ☆ The Story of an Article « Mostly physics()

  • http://ilja-schmelzer.de/ Ilja Schmelzer

    To publish preprints before publication in journals is very important for scientific progress, and I think it is sufficiently important to be enforced by the scientific community.

    And there is a simple way to do it: To boycott journals with editorial policies against such prior publication.

    The first level of such a boycott would be simply not to publish in such journals. The more rigorous one not to cite articles published in such journals, or to cite them as “unpublished manuscript”.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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