A personal dream: Journal of Physical Insight

Just a week after I published my post on the scientific publishing industry (#occupy_scientific_journals), the whole world seemed to explode. Tim Gowers started his personal crusade, and articles appeared even in mainstream media about how Elsevier and the strange world of scientific publishing. I was happy.

But complaining is not enough. I have had a dream for a long time: to create a scientific journal. A possible name would be “Journal of Physical Insight”, but others have been proposed by friends, such as “New Points of View in Physics”. Let me explain how it would look like.

Aim and scope. the journal would not aim at publishing original research. It would publish only original insight about known research. New ways of looking at old things. Conquering new territories is not more important than colonizing them.

Examples: revisiting old concepts using new tools, interesting conjectures, exposition of conceptual difficulties and possible ways out, more clever notations, unexpected connections between distant results… Do not misunderstand me, it would be a hard-core research journal, indexed in JCR. It would not be a teachers’ journal, although also teaching might be benefitted from it.

Publication style. I would like it to be a fully free journal, both for readers and authors. Authors would be required to typeset the paper carefully, in final form, check the references, etc. The editors would be volunteers, and they would be required to be young scientists, counting on the help of an advisory committee of senior scientists.

Special emphasis would be given to the writing style. The special aim of the journal suggests that editors and referees should encourage the authors to make a special effort to make concepts very clear. Also, evidently, to peruse the literature as deeply as possible, also outside your field: novel ideas in one field can be known concepts in another.

Peer-review process. That is one of the main novelties brought by the project. First of all, I want it to be double-blind, i.e.: the referees will not know the names of the authors or their affiliation. Also, I advocate for a two-stage peer-review process. The first one would be as quick as possible. Once the paper is published, its refereeing process would not be finished. It would start the second, community-driven process. Comments would be open for each article, and they would be collected for a reasonable amount of time, e.g. two years. It’s already time for scientific research to benefit from the 2.0 revolution! After that trial time, a second refereeing process would be carried out, to assess the impact of the work beyond its number of scitations. This second evaluation would be most beneficial to funding agencies, of course, because by then all scientists in the field would know the article.

Normally, the scientific edition procedure starts when the authors submit their finished work. Given its special scope, this journal would encourage authors to submit article proposals to the editors before embarking in the project, as it is done typically with review papers. The editorial board, if they consider the proposal interesting, will give support to the authors. This is a standard procedure in other areas, but not in science.

Of course, such a project will take a long time to bloom. It will require support from some scientific institution, although money is not an issue in this case: a few dedicated servers would be more than enough. Much more important is to convince a critical mass of colleagues, from all branches of physics, that this idea is worth trying.  Thus, I think time is ripe to ask for feedback… What are your thoughts?

(thanks to Silvia N. Santalla)

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5 thoughts on “A personal dream: Journal of Physical Insight

  1. I like the idea.

    One more comment – sometimes it may be good to ‘atomize’ results. I.e. for the further convenience it ma be good to accept thing of different length, also very short. Then it can serve as building brick, easy to be found and easy to be reused.

    When it comes to the double blind review, I used to be convinced, but there are arguments against: http://academia.stackexchange.com/questions/625/open-versus-blind-reviewing-process

  2. “Doube blind peer review” seems to be an overkill to me, and hard to make it work right (after all, you can often guess the author by the content/choice of topic).

    Can you give, say, 3 examples of existing articles that would fit the journal’s mission?

    If you’re about to use community feedback, calling the thing a “journal” might not be 100% appropriate (since it’d be more like a publishing platform than a journal proper).

    I applaud the general idea, but it’s not clear to me if people will have enough incentives to write review papers specifically for this journal. I.e. it always pays back more (in terms of money/prestige) to do new research than revisit old stuff, even if the latter is more beneficial to community at large (arguably, a good review paper can bring more insight than 5 small incremental publications). The question is how to make the journal prestigious enough to persuade people that publishing there is a valuable use of their time. E.g. one could persuade some “big shots” to “seed” the journal with some good papers.

    Good luck trying!

  3. @pmigdal, thanks for the suggestions. Indeed, accepting a wide spectrum of length scales in papers, i.e.: a fractal journal, seems a wonderful idea! ;) About the double-blind, I have read the thread, and I’ve found some compelling arguments in favour of open reviewing. Indeed, my proposal combines both: an initial double-blind + community (open) review…. Anonymous reviews can be sloppy and careless sometimes, the editor should reject them, of course. I will be more than happy to discuss pros and cons! :)

    @Marcin, thanks for your suggestions and encouragement! :) Regarding the double-blind, you’re right in that “guessing” is not that hard. Johann Bernoulli said “we know the lion by his claw” (ex ungue leonem) by reading a paper and realizing it was from Newton. Nonetheless, I prefer the “guessing” than the actual “knowing” :)

    About your suggestion to provide examples of articles which fulfill the conditions, I think it’s a great idea. The problem is that one will pick papers, mostly, from their own field…

    – Kadanoff, “Scaling laws for Ising models near Tc”, Physics 2, 263 (1966). The paper is, clearly, a new way to see old phenomena. Introduces the notion of blocking spins and shows how some of the scaling relations look more natural. The strong point of the paper is, clearly, the insight.

    – Alsing and Milonni, “Simplified derivation of the Hawking–Unruh temperature for an accelerated observer in vacuum”. They explain the Hawking temperature in a very simple way, using only the Doppler effect. No new phenomena predicted, just new insight. http://ajp.aapt.org/resource/1/ajpias/v72/i12/p1524_s1

    – Crosswhite, Bacon, “Finite automata for caching in matrix product algorithms”. They explain the matrix product states (a technical tool, still poorly understood in quantum many-body physics) in some cases using finite automata!! No new calculations, but nice insight. Even their approach is not general enough… but it’s nice. http://pra.aps.org/abstract/PRA/v78/i1/e012356

    More examples will come to my mind as the day goes on… :) Ideas are welcom, from different fields.

    Prestige is the main problem and the main asset of a journal, in fact. Any new journal has to overcome this barrier. We scientists are very open to discussion, but very close to changing our working routines, as @pmigdal and I discussed recently… If you present a scientist with a good new idea, he/she will very likely accept that it *is* a good idea… but, nonetheless, stick to his/her old procedures.

    Of course, it is an alpha release of the idea. Most of all, it needs feedback at this stage. If the interest reaches a certain critical mass, I will myself start talking to big shots and institutions for support.

  4. It’s a good idea. I’m not from Physics but from Computer Science (as my nick suggests), but the motivations behind the idea apply to my field as well. I propose a few crazy ideas, just for the discussion:

    1.- Combining blind and open reviews, both in the author side and the reviewer side, and even in all four combinations: One reviewer does not know the author neither authors know him; another reviewer does not know the authors but the authors know him; another one is the other way around (the typical case indeed); and a last one knows the authors and authors know him.

    2.- Using advocates and prosecutors, like in trials. The advocate reviewer must provide pros and the prosecutor reviewer must provide cons. Next, all journal editors (which might have read the paper or not) vote based on both reports.

    3.- Applying a prestige accounting to reviewers. Reviews gain “prestige points” if papers accepted by them are cited by many subsequent papers in the next n years, else they lose them. Rejecting a paper is neutral: points are neither gained nor lost (or maybe some points could be lost – otherwise, some reviewers would never risk). Every year, those reviewers with more points are given a special responsibility (e.g. breaking ties, being included in a kind of steering committee, etc).

  5. Hi, NP-complete, and thanks for your suggestions. Of course, although my field is physics, I think the idea can be exported to any other scientific area. Your ideas regarding the improvement of the refereeing process are very nice… in fact maybe the best idea would be for some traditional journals to do some experimental research, try these ideas out: double-blind refereeing, combined blind and open (one-eyed reviews?)… to find the right tradeoff between fair and successful refereeing and not-exceeding overhead of work for the referees, editors and authors. If some editor reads these lines, I herefore summon you to try it! :D

    The prestige attached to reviewers leads to a 2.0 view of science, which I like. In the end, science is a social network, isn’t it? This is the way StackExchange works, for example. The only problem, of course, would be to give the “right rewards”, i.e.: there is risk in acceptance of a paper, if it is bad… but there should also be some risk of rejecting a paper, if it is good. Kind of, this story reminds me of the “auctioning”-type problems: how to design an auctioning system so that nobody can use a strategy to take advantage?

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