Is condensed matter physics a contentious field ?

Physical Review Letters (PRL) may no longer be the most prestigious physics journal, but is certainly one that still enjoys a position of prominence. Articles submitted to PRL are short, highly condensed, and should illustrate findings of importance and broad interest across the entire discipline. In other words, even though its subject will still fall within specific areas of physics (i.e., condensed matter, high energy, etc.), in principle the content of an article published in PRL should catch the attention of, and be deemed important by all physicists, not just those working in the area of the article (whether that is actually the case or not, is not the subject of this post).

A seemingly reasonable estimate of the fraction of articles submitted to PRL, by physicists working in the various areas of physics, namely condensed matter physics (cmp), atomic, molecular and optical physics (amo), high energy physics (hep) etc., might be obtained by looking at the numbers of articles published annually in the various specialized sections of Physical Review. Articles published therein are so broad in scope, and of sufficiently general interest across the whole discipline, to justify their submission (or, publication) in PRL.
Here are the numbers for 2007:

Physical Review A (amo): 2,259
Physical Review B (cmp): 5,744
Physical Review C (nuc): 934
Physical Review D (hep): 2,268
Physical Review E (stat): 2,255

Based on the above numbers, one might infer the relative “sizes” of the various fields (i.e., the fractions of physicists engaged in each of them), and tentatively posit that the number of papers submitted to PRL from the various areas should reflect reasonably closely those sizes. So, for example, for every paper in nuclear physics submitted to PRL, there will be roughly 2.5 papers in amo, hep and statistical physics, and a little over 6 papers in cmp. That Condensed Matter Physics is the largest area of research in physics nowadays, is hardly a secret.

A paper submitted for publication to PRL undergoes review by a number of anonymous referees, hand picked by the Editor of PRL for the particular area of physics to which the subject of the paper pertains. Based on the opinion expressed by the referees, as well as the rebuttals offered by the authors, the Editor makes a decision of either publication or rejection of the submitted manuscript.
The Editor’s decision is generally definitive, but authors have the option of appealing, in which case the entire file for that submission (which includes the manuscript itself, as well as the reports of all the referees and the replies of the authors) is forwarded to a Divisional Associate Editor (DAE), a reputable senior scientist also affiliated to the specific area of physics to which the paper belongs.
The DAE will review the file and make a final deliberation, which will then be communicated to the authors — the identity of the DAE is disclosed to the authors if his/her decision confirms that of the Editor (namely, the manuscript is rejected) [0].

Here is a curious fact: PRL has a number of DAEs for the various areas of research — their names are listed here. I am not so concerned with their names though, as much as with their numbers. Specifically,
Atomic Molecular and Optical Physics 5
Astrophysics 5
Condensed Matter Physics 36
Nuclear Physics 7
Particles and Fields 6

Oh-kay… can anyone explain to me why there are six times more DAEs for condensed matter physics than there are for Particles and Fields ? Why more than for all other areas of physics combined [1] ?
Are the relative numbers of submissions to PRL in the various areas, so different from those estimated above, based on the number of articles ? Maybe but… it seems strange to me that condensed matter physicists would be so much more inclined than others to submit to PRL. Are there really six times more papers submitted to PRL in cmp than in hep, for instance ?
Another possible explanation is that condensed matter physicists are more prone to appealing, or, more generally, that reviews of condensed matter physics articles submitted to PRL tend to be more difficult, controversial, more likely to result in “battles of egos” between authors and referees… if that is the case, why is that ?
Has condensed matter physics become all of a sudden a contentious field ? Or, are there other reasons for having so many more DAEs in cmp ?


[0] On the other hand, in my experience if the DAE’s decision is that the paper be accepted, the DAE’s identity is not disclosed to the authors.

[1] It should be noted that there are 14 additional referees in Materials Science, Chemical Physics, Polymer Physics and Biological Physics, all areas commonly regarded close to Condensed Matter Physics.

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11 Responses to “Is condensed matter physics a contentious field ?”

  1. Sophia Says:

    In my experience the name of the DAE is disclosed in both cases.

    • Massimo Says:

      Well, actually I have had two papers accepted in this way and in neither case I was told who the DAE was. A third time I was told, but the DAE himself requested changes in the manuscript.

    • Schlupp Says:

      I was only once involved in an appeal, it was successful, and we were given the name of the DAE.

      I just spent an hour trying to hunt information on the conundrum presented in your post. (Eh, I had to take a vacation day for other reasons, and this is CLEARLY the best way to use it.)

  2. transientreporter Says:

    You physicists are weird…

    I assume that DAE’s are appointed in advance, and not selected once there is a dispute. In that case, it seems to me, that the pertinent question to ask is if there is some incentive among cmp’s to serve as DAE’s that does not exist in other fields.

    Is there a prestige issue? Are there more self-promoters among cmp’s, esp. given that it’s a crowded field…?

    • Massimo Says:

      Well, so, there is a list of DAEs who serve in this capacity for a fixed term, and I am sure that there is indeed prestige associated to that. Once a dispute occurs, the Editor selects one of the DAEs to arbitrate over that particular manuscript.
      I am not sure I see any reason why a cmp person may want to serve as DAE more than a hep one… as for self-promoters, I thought they were everywhere…

      • transientreporter Says:

        I still don’t understand the value of the DAEs. If 3 reviewers think a manuscript isn’t up to snuff, shouldn’t that be the end of the story? Why doesn’t everyone appeal? All that DAE’s do is diminish the value of the regular reviewers – a pretty thankless job to begin with. There’s something a little distasteful about Mr. Big Shot coming in and telling everyone what a paper is REALLY worth…

      • Massimo Says:

        You are asking pointed and pertinent questions, my friend… what can I say, I guess it is accepted that because three is still a very small number, and because referees are often times competitors, it may be appropriate in some cases to allow for an extra level of evaluation (hey, sentences can be appealed too…).
        In my experience, one will typically appeal if the referees were not unanimous in rejecting — say two were in favour of publication, one against, and the Editor decided to reject because (s)he would rather see unanimity… but if that one referee who objected did so on flimsy grounds, or can be shown to be biased or ill-informed…

  3. Schlupp Says:

    Much of what the DAEs do is what editors should do, i.e., go beyond a “vote count” assessment of the referee reports. The DAE as a super-editor is just a way to acknowledge that the normal editors have too high a workload to do a more in-depth analysis of the situation, so there is another layer for the more contentious cases.

    • Massimo Says:

      Yes, that is exactly the point. The problem is, in most cases there is no unanimity. Often times the Editor has to make a judgment call, in the presence of, say, one report that says ‘publish’, one that says ‘do not publish’ and one that says ‘publish all right, but maybe another journal would be more appropriate’. It is very difficult for anyone to make a deliberation based on the above, in the very short time between this paper and the next.
      The solution would be for all of us to give ourselves a moratorium, and stop submitting papers to PRL every other month. Maybe we should all submit just one a year…

      • Schlupp Says:

        Phys. Rev. had that nice editorial on the subject, where they argue that submitting anything and everything to PRL is a bad strategy. Uh, not so. Unfortunately it works better than only sending one’s best work there, precisely because it is a lottery and because the value attached to a PRL is unreasonably high. (After all, PRL’s impact factor is just twice that of PRB, so it shouldn’t be such a huge deal.)

  4. Sophia Says:

    I think people are willing to serve as DAEs mostly for the same reasons all of us agree to serve as (unpaid) reviewers. You are helping the system you’re part of work.

    Regarding the question of why allow authors an appeal at the first place. From my experience with talking with friends and collaborators most people appeal when they really feel the editorial decision was unfair or when one of the negative reviewers shows unprofessional behavior or ignorance. Appealing all the time is not a good strategy because a) you’re putting your resources (time/effort) in something that most likely will not work while you could be doing something useful (new research) and b) you acquire the notoriety of being that person who always appeals and you probably wouldn’t be taken seriously anymore (remember, editors and DAEs are also people with memory).

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