PRL Editorial: Standards and Growth (December 10, 2001)
Physical Review Letters has grown in size, slowly but steadily over the years. The November 5, 2001 issue for example, contained 62 Letters; 2800 of the 7650 Letters submitted in 1999 have been accepted, a record, as it has been almost every year. This has not been due to an increase in the acceptance rate, which has averaged 39% since 1988 and fluctuated without trend between 37% and 41%. Rather this is due to a growth in submissions, which have doubled since 1988. The growth in submissions in the last two years is somewhat less, about 4% per year.
Despite the fact that acceptance rates have not increased, we believe that the journal now publishes more than is optimal. This view, which arises from our own knowledge of the journal and from the opinions of many among the community of researchers who make use of the journal, holds that the standards of importance, significance, and interest for the area of a given paper and related areas are not currently at a properly high level for Physical Review Letters.
We believe the journal is too large by a modest amount. Therefore the thresholds for the standards of importance, significance, and interest should be raised so that the number of published Letters is reduced by approximately 10%. This is an estimate not a numerical target. We realize that even a reduction this small will have significant consequences for researchers as well as for editors and referees. Of course, if growth in submissions continues and the acceptance rate is stable, the size will continue to increase. However, we do not know how submissions will grow in the future and/or how they will be affected by the higher standards.
It is important to realize that the role of Physical Review Letters has changed over the years. Originally, Physical Review Letters aimed to publish Letters of such importance and interest that any active physicist would wish to know about them. As physics has grown and evolved, this has changed. A more accurate description of its role now would be to say that it publishes many Letters that have the truly general interest described above, but many that report developments important to the particular field and to related fields, but not necessarily of the level that would make them essential reading for all physicists.
Almost no one reads the entire journal, but at the same time almost no one reads only articles in his or her own field. Because of the widely varying range of fields read by different readers, it remains true that the special role of Physical Review Letters is that of a single Letters journal that covers essentially all of physics. This is a characteristic that has been shown to be highly valued by the community at large.
Certainly, Physical Review Letters wishes to publish papers of truly general interest. However, these papers are few and far between, and the operational standard that we and the community have adopted is whether or not the letter communicates results of sufficient importance, significance, and interest to researchers in the relevant field and related fields. This modification has been driven by the actions of the referees and the researchers themselves, and we believe that in this role Physical Review Letters provides a useful and important publishing service to physics research.
The journal is working reasonably well and we are mindful of changes that might cause more harm than good. We also know that criteria like importance, significance, and interest have a strongly subjective aspect. So when standards related to those qualities are increased there might be an increase in what has been called the "stochastic" component of the acceptance process. Nevertheless, we believe that the benefits of publishing Letters of greater relevance and importance outweigh these risks, which we will, of course, do our best to minimize.
This change clearly requires the cooperation of referees and authors as well as the diligence of the editors. We have revised the referee response form to help referees focus on the new standards as they review Letters we send to them, and to facilitate communication of the referees' evaluations to the editors. When assessing the subjective aspects, the referees and editors should focus on the positive reasons for publishing the letter, rather than on whether there are sufficient reasons for rejecting it. We look forward to working with referees and authors to improve the journal.