Today in “AMO Physics Is Way More Pleasant Than Biology”

As part of my “blog more regularly” push, I’m going to start moving some things that I’ve been posting as Twitter threads over here, where they’ll maybe be more pleasant to read for the tiny number of people who bother to read them. Starting with this Ed Yong piece at The Atlantic on a couple of life-science journals making it easier to publish papers whose main results were “scooped” by another group within a few months.

This is very much a Good Thing, but also a bit of a head-scratcher for me, particularly the quote from journal editor Eve Marder saying “We are seeing a trend toward the co-submission of papers from labs that choose not to compete but, rather, to jointly announce new findings.” Thee are both things that have been reasonably common in my corner of physics, going back twenty-plus years.

I mean, two of the papers I published in grad school had technically been “scooped” in this way– our paper on optical control of collisions came out a couple of months after a similar paper from a Japanese group, as was the paper on collisions in optical lattices. In both cases, the Japanese group sent us advance notice of their work, and offered to delay publication slightly so the papers could come out together. We didn’t take them up on that, but in both cases, our paper came out later in the same journal, Physical Review Letters, which was about as high in the prestige hierarchy as it could plausibly get.

It’s not just us, either– when I was doing the research for the ebook on quantum simulation that I wrote for Physics World (which is a free download, you should read it), I saw a bunch of this. Papers announcing key advances in the techniques used for these experiments tend to come in groups: there are 2-3 papers demonstrating single-atom resolution in optical lattices with bosons, then 2-3 papers doing the same thing with fermions, etc. These come from different groups, but they’re all in glamour journals (granted, not exactly the same journal– typically one is in Science and the next in Nature, or vice versa). There doesn’t seem to be any career-destroying penalty to being second in these sort of races in the world of cold-atom physics.

Now, granted, in these groupings, the two papers tend to have slightly different angles on the same thing, but that’s a natural part of doing science– different labs think about the same problem in slightly different ways, so the results from two groups are never perfectly identical. But my experience within my home research community has not been that second-place papers are totally blocked from publication, or even blocked from publication in the top journals. There are plenty of examples of pairs or triplets of papers that report essentially the same physics result within a few months of each other, all in top-tier journals.

So, I find the story from biology slightly surprising. It’s a positive development, but also a bit of a “thank God I don’t work with these people…” kind of thing. I’m making another tally mark in the column headed “Life Scientists Are Assholes,” and then partially erasing it.

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