Beyond frustration

I’ve been working very hard on a particular idea for about two years now – the idea that the Cerf-Adami inequalities are, in fact, another statement of the classical second law of thermodynamics.  I thought I had done a pretty good job proving it in the latest version of my paper on the topic, but, alas, yet another reviewer gave it short shrift.  What I think is so frustrating is actually a general complaint I have about the whole process.

Having recently spoken to someone who was upset about a particular paper that actually did get published, it has occurred to me that the peer-review system has one very serious flaw: people seem to be so immensely busy these days that reviewers just don’t give papers the attention they truly deserve.  Whomever the reviewer of my paper was, it was someone who was familiar with it since they hinted at the fact in the review (I have a hunch I know who it was, but I’m not sure).  

In any case, there were some surprisingly odd comments from the reviewer including one in which he/she states “While the log used to define the entropy is arbitrary, it gives units to the entropy.”  Say wha??  A logarithm is a purely mathematical function.  Units are physical.  Perhaps he/she means that the choice of base determine what units can be used, which is true to some extent, but is really an arbitrary choice.

Also, there is this annoyingly persistent notion (given by all the reviewers that have reviewed it over the past couple of years) that I have confused quantum and classical entropies which I have not.  For instance, the reviewer says “This is roughly where I gave up reviewing this paper.  Unfortunately for the author, this is BEFORE he argues for the Cerf-Adami inequalities as an alternative formulation of the 2nd law. But note that there is no 2nd law in quantum mechanics.”  Well, the latter point is debatable (see Nielsen & Chuang for example) but I’m not that dumb.  Anyway, the whole crux of the paper appeared after he/she gave up and I fail to see how the second sentence has anything to do with the first in the reviewers comments since I never say anything about QM until the end and thus fail to see how I could have confused these two points.

OK, enough of the specific griping.  Now to the more general issues that this highlights.  The world is so incredibly busy these days that people have little or no time to spend on anything remotely outside their immediate sphere of influence, so to speak.  As such, people, by and large, tend to gravitate toward what they know (or what they think they know).  So, reviewers often skim papers or are so biased against a result right from the abstract that they’re not willing to be swayed.  I have a suspicion in my case it may be that the reviewer assumes I am so “green” that I really don’t know statistical mechanics very well (e.g. this quote: “the author needs to educate himself some more about the relation between thermodynamics and statistics”), despite the fact that I have been teaching an advanced course in thermodynamics and statistical mechanics for many years and purposely teach the relation between them because half the class are physics majors and the other half engineers. In addition, I am convinced that reviewers have a tendency to readily approve, with little oversight, work they are familiar with, even if it is suspect.

This actually goes beyond the review process, though.  I am fairly new to the quantum information field (3-4 years or so), but have had an impossible time finding anyone (with one exception) willing to really give me the time of day on any of my papers, though I have gotten a bit of interest on my latest paper on qubits on closed time-like curves.  People are all friendly and outgoing until I mention work and then they’re too busy.  I genuinely think they are busy and I don’t think it’s necessarily personal, but it is a serious problem if we have any hope of expanding our field.  In addition, it marginalizes people like me who took a non-traditional route to get where I am.

Since I’m tired I’m not articulating this very well, but the basic idea is there.  Something needs to be done to change the way the system works.  Hopefully the new open peer-review (OPR) process being tested by will prove to be a step in the right direction, but it’s tough to get people out of the ruts they fall into.  For instance, I’ve been blogging for two years and, though I’m not nearly as good as The Pontiff, you’d think I’d have picked up a larger readership by now.  At this point, the main reason for continuing is because I find it cathartic.  Otherwise, I’m at a loss.


15 thoughts on “Beyond frustration

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  1. Hi Ian,

    I have just skimmed your paper. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about the field to digest it in a short period of time, but I do know enough about the game of physics to offer some unsolicited advice. I hope you take it in the friendly manner its meant.

    Firstly, a “pdf only” paper on the arxiv is a red flag. I strongly suggest you typeset in latex in a standard (say aps revtex) format. We are monkeys with pattern recognition hardwired, and I promise you the pattern of your paper raises negative connotations!

    Secondly, explain at the start the actual physics – your intutions on the problem, what you think you can show, why its interesting etc etc. People dont have time to read papers unless they are motivated to do so and its your job to motivate them. We aren’t robots. The very generic stuff you have in the first paragraph is terrible motivation for reading *this particular paper*.

    Thirdly: Its unclear what of your manipulations are actually new, and what are not. Spell out the new or non-obvious stuff ridiculously clearly in a paper, it tells the reader as they’re drifting off to sit up and take notice.

    Fourthly: You have at least 1 strong result: Cerf-Adami doesnt rely on properties of markov chains). I’m presuming this wasnt known. So if you want it published make that the central result of the paper, and then you are free to add whatever interpretations or speculations or musings you like. People are happy if there is a non-trivial technical result at the core of the paper. It takes a long time before this comes through in your paper (it isn’t even mentioned in the abstract for example).

    Well there is much more about the style of the paper which makes it unfriendly to physicists, but that will do for now. I’m not saying the things I’ve alluded to are right or at all necessary for good science to be done – but they are just part of how physics *is* actually done, and it doesn’t take so much effort to understand the limitations of your colleagues and to ensure your stuff gets out there appropriately.

  2. Tez,

    I appreciate the comments and I do take them in a positive way, but I will note that I am a physicist and have been one for many years and am thus aware of most of your above points. I think I am just having trouble with this single paper (see, for instance, my paper on quantum communication on closed time-like curves, which has met with better reaction).

    I write in PDF only as a personal protest. Yes, I know this sends a red flag on the arXiv, but I don’t submit that way to PRA. I submit in Word in order to get the page charges waived.

    For this particular paper, I have worked through it with a slew of well-known physicists (particularly Barry Sanders on the recent draft) and have been doing so for nearly two years. You should see the wide variety of drafts I’ve tried. It seems as if I am searching for the right way to say what you clearly saw in your fourth point, but every angle I try has thusfar failed which has been frustrating.

    Thanks again for your comments and I hope you stop by again to see my response.

  3. Hi Ian,

    I will bet you two pints of lager next time you’re in London, that if you send my comments to Barry (whom I’ve written several papers with) and a copy of your paper that he will completely agree with everything I said 🙂

    (I’ll buy you one pint if you just want to come visit us anyway, I think we could have some interesting discussions on the philosophy of peoples’ belief in the security of QKD…)

    The Cerf-Adami extended result isn’t even alluded to in your paper until looong after most people will have stopped reading. If you simply make this the central result of the paper you can get it published easily (assuming its correct!).

    Also sorry for making it sound like I thought you weren’t a physicist, I didnt mean it to come off that way. But I certainly stick by everything I said about the paper. It needs a drastic rewrite, it really does. Which I know is a discouraging thing to say after you’ve been through all this, but its the truth.

  4. Tez,

    I will most certainly take you up on the offer of a pint next time I am in London. I’m tempting to take your wager as well only because Barry thoroughly vetted the current version as well as a previous version (in fact we went through numerous revisions together).

    I think the problem is partly the topic. While it is easy to say “focus on A and it will get published” writing it concisely in this particular case has proven to be harder than it looks.

    On the other hand, are you offering assistance on a rewrite? 😉 Heh heh…

  5. I’ve sent Barry the link to this page. Frankly I am surprised you didn’t get it published despite those things I said above. I’m also surprised Barry didn’t suggest the change of focus etc that I mentioned above. I’m pretty sure he’ll agree that it will make it much easier to read and to publish.

    I’m happy to comment on any rewrite you do. I presume you can see the email address that I put in for these comments…

  6. Indeed it is there – and I just realized Tez = Terry Rudolph! – which explains why you know Barry so well.

  7. I provided some advice to Ian at various stages of the draft, mostly in how to get straight to the point of the paper and in unresolved but interesting questions about properly formulating the 2nd Law of thermodynamics – I am not an expert on this topic, and I was surprised how weakly formulated this law seems to be.

    As for rewrites, I saw that Ian had dramatically improved the paper, but there is always room for more improvement. I agree with all Tez’s comments, so does this mean that Tez buys me a pint next time I am in London (June!)? Ian, I think you are addressing an important question, but I didn’t go so far as to verify the result, rather focused on helping you to communicate the result. I like the problem you are working on but am not an expert myself.

    As for PRA, you don’t have to use Word; charges are equally waived for LaTeX submissions.


  8. Barry,

    Aha! I guess I never realized you didn’t verify my result, but, hey, that’s ok. Guess Tez owes you a pint (and I probably owe you a keg). I do realize PRA discounts for LaTeX as well, but I have two other motives for using Word. The first is that I have, I guess, minor dyslexia and it helps me to see the equation (which I know you can do with a LaTeX viewer which I have). Also, perhaps related to this, no matter how hard I try I always need to look up the LaTeX code for equations (porous memory on certain things – and yet I can say the Hannukah prayers in Hebrew by heart and I’m not even Jewish – go figure). So, anyway, I usually find it faster to use Word. On the other hand, now that I have iWork ’08 and LaTeXiT, I have found them to be a fairly good compromise.

  9. Joe, I look forward to any comments you have on my CTC qubit paper. Still awaiting word from PRA on it (it’s still out for review).

  10. Yah – sadly I know Barry much better than any person who doesnt eat children for breakfast should have to.

    You may consider Scientific Word, which is a WYSIWIG front-end for Latex (also has menus you can click on the symbols, but if you know the latex code you can hold control and type it…)

    Its not clear how many pints I owe, if at all, but I’m always up for one, especially given this beautiful weather…

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