Physical Review Letters gives a WARNING!!! (1958)

Though scientific knowledge has increased by leaps and bounds throughout the course of human history, human nature itself hasn’t changed very much!  Looking through the old scientific journals, one can find arguments and conflicts that are still in some form still playing out today.  A few months ago, I described an 1804 paper titled, “On the decline of mathematical studies, and the sciences dependent upon them,” which laments England’s loss of competitiveness due to lack of comprehensive mathematics education; the arguments in the paper might have been written today.

A week ago, I was browsing the archives of Physical Review Letters, which is in essence the most prestigious physics-only journal in existence.  (Papers in Nature and Science are considered more prestigious, but those journals cover all scientific topics.)  Getting a paper into PRL is considered a great achievement — it supposedly indicates that your research is a significant scientific advance of very broad importance that should be published rapidly.  The prestige is so great, in fact, that it is very tempting for researchers to submit work that is not quite appropriate for PRL, on the off-chance that it can be “snuck in”.  This results in an excessive amount of papers being submitted to the journal, overwhelming its editors and its peer-reviewers, and can be a real hassle.

I suspect the top journals in every field see this sort of problem, but surely this wasn’t a problem for PRL in the heyday of physics, when the journal was first initiated, right?

Volume 1, issue 1 of Physical Review Letters came out on July 1st, 1958; in the February 1st, 1959 issue of PRL (vol. 2, p. 80), an editorial appeared with the very ominous title, “A WARNING”.  The text of this editorial is presented in its entirety below.

When we started the publication of PHYSICAL REVIEW LETTERS we had a rather idealistic goal in mind.  Our intention was to make this a journal which would appeal to the readers, rather than to the authors, just the reverse of THE PHYSICAL REVIEW.  We had hoped that among others the 7000 members of our Society who do not receive THE PHYSICAL REVIEW could use this inexpensive journal to keep them informed about the latest developments in the most active research areas.

On the part of the authors we had hoped that they would submit only those manuscripts which deserve rapid dissemination and that they would avoid expressions and abbreviations intelligible only to small inner circles.

We have been seriously disappointed.  The subscriptions from members are far below expectations.  The number of manuscripts submitted has almost doubled so that the journal is getting too bulky to read easily.  Many of the Letters are badly composed and valuable time is lost in editing and modifying them.

We now request the cooperation of our colleagues to help us to get more subscriptions and fewer manuscripts.  This journal should not be used for a quick publication of preliminary results of relatively routine research, or for a second publication of results already submitted as meeting abstracts.  The speed of publication makes adequate refereeing difficult and we must therefore rely heavily on the judgment of the authors themselves.  We do not think that it helps an author’s reputation if he publishes rather routine work in a journal restricted to important new results only.

Unless the influx of Letters diminishes we shall have to impose stricter standards and reject in future almost half of the Letters submitted.

S.A. Goudsmit

Samuel A. Goudsmit (1902-1978) was the first editor of PRL, but is also known scientifically as being one of two scientists (along with George E. Uhlenbeck) who conceived of the idea of electron spin in 1925.

As I alluded earlier, this editorial may well have been written today!  Top journals are constantly suffering under a flood of inadequate or inappropriate submissions, so much so that at least the two top journals (Science and Nature) have their editors pre-screen submissions before sending them out to reviewers.  (I seem to recall hearing that PRL was thinking of going the same route.)

I don’t have a whole lot more to say about this editorial, other than to state again that it shows that scientists are subject to ordinary human temptation, and that human nature hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years!

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