Friday, May 11, 2007

Ivory Tower

I have a lot of prejudices. Most are about academics. One such prejudice is that the average academic either is a Jazz-fan or an aggressive defender of classical music, but no way he would admit on listening to *gulp* mainstream music (independent thinking and all). Interestingly, if you plug in your laptop to the PI network and have iTunes installed, it wants to share your files with other computers in the network. For example with mine. In such a way, I have heard quite a lot of interesting music. From Chinese techno, over Italian guitar music to completely unidentifiable rather weird electronic loops. The obvious Jazz-stuff of course. And an astonishingly high amount of Avril Lavigne and Christina Aguilera.

Anyway, it seems already the presence of the two letters Dr in front of my name leads people to accuse me of living in an ivory tower, and of not knowing what 'real' life is. This is of course completely correct, since I am not 'really' living. Occasionally, I am reminded of this. For example, I talked to a friend on the phone recently and was extensively complaining about the referee process of one of my papers, going on forever about peer review and editors who don't know a fermion from a boson. Until my friend interrupted me rather annoyed to tell me she has no idea what I am talking about, and would I please recall not everybody publishes papers in scientific journals. Okay. Now I am back to earth. Since the header of this blog says something about every day blahblah physicists, here's how to publish a scientific paper.

1) Have something worth publishing. For inspiration, see e.g. my Paper Recipe , or read some of the weirder comments on this blog.

2) Pick a journal. Not an easy task. There are a large number of scientific journals in various degrees of specialization. The broader the context of the journal, the larger the audience that you can reach, but the harder it will be to get published. A more specified journal is generally more supportive in the refereeing process. If you chose a leading and highly cited journal, be prepared for rejection. I believe for example PRL receives much more papers than they can possibly publish, so the rejection quote is somewhere around 70%, not to mention Science and Nature.

3) Find out the specifics of the journal. What is the main scope? How much details are appropriate? Is there a page limit? If the journal publishes several kinds of papers, which form is the most suitable for your paper? A note, a letter, a full research article? If possible, download a sample file.

4) Write the paper. This is the difficult task. To begin with, your paper should actually have content. It should be a new result, and you should appropriately embed it into the existing research. Keep in mind what audience you are writing to, and make sure to meet the standard of the journal.

5) Okay, lets just assume you have mastered that. Now you submit your stuff to the journal. In most cases you do that today via an online form (e.g. the one at Physical Review D). You then get a reply that acknowledges receipt of the manuscript and reminds you of the rules of good scientific publishing. Looks somewhat like this:

    Dear Dr. Hossenfelder,

    The editors acknowledge receipt of this manuscript on xx/yy/zzzz and are considering it as [type of article] in [journal].

    We understand your submission of this manuscript to certify the following:

    - The paper represents original work of the listed authors.

    - The manuscript as presented accurately reflects the scientific results.

    - All of the authors made significant contributions to the concept, design, execution, or interpretation of the research study.

    - All those who made significant contributions were offered the opportunity to be listed as authors.

    - All of the listed authors are aware of and agree to the submission of this manuscript.

    - The manuscript has not been published, and is not now and will not be under consideration by another journal while it is considered here.

    - As part of the submission, the authors have provided any relevant information to the editors (e.g., information about recent relevant unpublished manuscripts by the authors).

    - The authors accept the established procedures for selecting manuscripts for publication.

In most cases, your paper will then be assigned to an editor who knows the field you are working in.

6) Now you wait for the editor of the journal to pick one or two of your colleagues to read and report on the paper. This is the dreaded peer review process. This stage can last arbitrarily long, depending on how often the referee has to be reminded of his task, how long it takes him to decline, or the editor to give up on it and chose somebody else. For my papers, it usually takes between 4 weeks and 4 months.

7) Eventually, the editor will send you the referee's report. Some journals indeed only ask for one report (imho not a good procedure). However, in one case I have received four reports (they all said the same but the editor still didn't know whether that was good or bad). Referees are usually asked to classify the paper into categories ranking from

    [x] great, publish it as it is!
    [x] sucks, forget it and reject.

If you fuck up really badly, you'll get a result like this:

    I agree with the referee that your manuscript is not acceptable for [the journal]. Please do not resubmit it or submit other papers to [the journal]. I will not be able to acknowledge [sic] further submissions.

If you are rejected in the first round, don't bother resubmitting. In my experience it's a lost case, even if you could prove that the referee didn't read the paper at all. However, usually the rejection has a good reason and you should carefully think about it. There are many things one can criticise about the peer review process (e.g. the importance of your home institution or your previous publications), but in most cases it works - somehow.

The most likely thing to happen is a report that raises several more or less fatal points, and you are asked to review your paper. Even in case the referee has no point, you will usually be asked to do SOMETHING. Like, changing the title, or exchanging section IIa with IVb, or to 'improve grammar and spelling'.

8) Assumed that you can address the referee's concerns, rewrite your paper, and resubmit. It goes back to the editor, and to the referee. Who will hopefully read it, and write another report: this is the important one. At this stage, most papers get eventually rejected. However, in principle this back and forth with the referee can go on forever, easily more than a year. In many cases I have to say the exchange with the referee has taught me a lot. Even if the paper was eventually rejected. In at least as many cases however, the referee reports were as annoying as ridiculous. A very common practice is e.g. that the referee will 'suggest' you cite various papers of 'some person' (guess who).

9) If everything works out, you will eventually get a message saying: We are pleased to tell you that your paper has been accepted for publication... Go, celebrate! If you haven't already done so with the submission, you will now be asked to sign a copyright form. (In most cases you can now do this online.)

10) Some while after that you will receive the proofs of you paper, that is the final layout of the manuscript how it will be available on the journal sites (and if a print journal be printed). You will most likely be asked to answer some queries, and update your reference list.

11) That's it. You're done. Ideally, the result looks like this. (Okay, okay, this was the true reason for me writing this post.)

Now some advises:

  • Never submit your paper to several journals at the same time. It can result in serious copyright problems.
  • Don't complain about the referee to the editor. It doesn't help anything. If you have concerns about being refereed by a competing colleague, mention this with the submission before you get assigned to a referee.
  • In most cases, the editor will chose authors of a paper you have cited as referees, you should keep that in mind.
  • Never reply to a referee report immediately. Especially not if you are upset. Breathe deeply, sleep over it. Keep your answers polite, no matter what.
  • If you resubmit a revised version, make sure it does at least look different, and that you included all references the referee 'suggested'.
  • Read the proofs carefully. In many cases mistakes appear in this version, ranking from messed up integrals to unfortunate line breaks in equations, or even the use of completely wrong symbols (in my last paper all \hbar's suddenly became \bar h).

Welcome to my ivory tower :-)


  1. Educational!

    Very awesome paper topic; it's so neat to see people working on stuff like DSR. Makes me glad to be spending time at Perimeter this summer.

  2. Hi Domenic,

    unfortunately, I won't be here most of the summer. what exactly do you find awesome about DSR? btw, most of your website doesn't work. Best,


  3. Sad to hear it; oh well. I suppose it would be much less busy over the summers. *Shrug*.

    Not that I know too much about it, but DSR seems neat because it's a concept that makes so much sense once you hear about it. It's a question about the interaction of our two big theories that isn't just a borderline case (like black holes), but a fundamental probing into how they interact. It seems like there would be many promising implications that could go somewhere very interesting.

    I guess what really excites me is that it's a relatively new direction that seems very physically compelling---and makes me hopeful that there are similar such ideas out there waiting to be discovered and worked on. Because while joining in the general string theory/wait for LHC data/etc. paradigm has its perks, it'd be much more fun to just find a new, compelling idea and run with it, or help someone else get such an idea off the ground.

    And yeah, my website is pretty broken at the moment... as the front page says, schoolwork takes up most of my time and reading books/papers/etc. takes up the rest. Such is life!

  4. Hi Domenic,

    well, let me know when you're around. I will be here some weeks. Or just keep reading my blog (of course you should do so anyhow ;-) ).

    Yes, there are definitely a lot of compelling ideas waiting to be discovered... your turn :-) DSR has it's weaknesses. The idea is nice, but it's currently poorly worked out. It's not so much a theory as a collection of 'concepts' that might or might not have something to do with nature. I think in DRS people are currently looking into the wrong details. There is no threshold correction, and I doubt there is anything like an energy dependent speed of light. We shouldn't get stuck on that. Lets look elsewhere.


  5. Hah.

    I knew I have seen that rejection notice before! Excellent usage.

  6. Bee,

    Cheers! Hope you're celebrating!

    On an entirely different topic than publishing papers, have you read a Hungarian/English humorist, George Mikes? (e.g., How to be an Alien, a bootleg version of which appears here:

    Since I read him before I read you, I have to say you remind me of him (it is only by chance that I'm not saying he reminds me of you) in terms of your style of humor :)

  7. ... the conserved Noether current can be derived which is additive in the usual way. said Bee while waving her hands furiously at the black board ;)

    kudos on another published!

  8. Hi Arun,

    thanks, I am very flattered to hear I have a style :-) No, I have never heard about that guy before, sounds interesting. How to be an alien? This reminds me that this blog started as a series of writing to my friends that I titled 'Emails from the Land of Plenty'. I found some of them recently (I thought for sure I had deleted them). I vaguely think about translating them into English, could be entertaining?

    You comment on the Pompus Pendantus was hilarious. There was nothing I could have added that would possibly have been more witty :-) I guess the pauciloquent appears in the blogosphere as a lurker.

    Indeed, I was kind of celebrating today... not so much about the paper, but because I've eventually managed to schedule all my summer trips (it's going to be a very busy year). Today we've had the second 'decoherence night' at PI. Was a lot of fun, will have some photos the next days.

    Hi Snowboarder,

    Indeed, you found the essential sentence in the paper (ITs ADDITIVE!). I haven't yet had the time to wave around hands furiously, but will do so in a while... I still practicing the chalk-throwing.

    All the best,


  9. Congrats on the paper being published! Sure, you might live in an ivory tower, but you're still human and have the same concerns as anyone else. Have a great weekend!

  10. ahhh neverending story, maybe the best story, how'd you remembered it!? wow

    and so you go trough the mirror...

  11. Hi Anonymous,

    The Neverending Story - How could I forget it? Isn't that the drama of our lives, to find out what we want? Best,


  12. Bee, many best wishes on your published paper, wish I could get axcess to it!

    Just want to give you some insight to the problems of Gravity:

    then click on the "gravity" button in the righthand sidebar ;)

    the record is from the album Continuum, but you may wish to get the ivory tower album "room for squares" !enjoy,best pv.

  13. Hi Folks,

    thanks so much for the kind words :-) More to come...

    Hi Paul,

    the paper is on the arxiv: hep-th/0702016. Thanks for the link. I've listend to that before, having heard it on the radio. It's not bad at all, but I don't like his voice.


  14. Hi Bee, thanks for the interesting post. My experiences wrting papers are very similar to yours (though in a different field). Congrats on getting the paper published! I read through your abstract, but what intrigued me was the "soccer-ball" problem?? What's the problem with the soccer ball? It's nice, it's round, it feels good to kick, etc.etc. ;-)


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