Jumping the Gun April 4, 2011Posted by gordonwatts in Uncategorized.
The internet has come to physics. Well, I guess CERN invented the internet, but, when it comes to science, our field usually moves at a reasonable pace – not too fast, but not (I hope) too slow. That is changing, however, and I fear some of the reactions in the field.
The first I heard about this phenomena was some results presented by the PAMELA experiment. The results were very interesting – perhaps indicating dark matter. The scientists showed a plot at a conference to show where they were, but explicitly didn’t put the plot into any public web page or paper to indicate they weren’t done analyzing the results or understanding their systematic errors. A few days later a paper showed up on arXiv (which I cannot locate) using a picture taken during the conference while the plot was being shown. Of course, the obvious thing to do here is: not talk about results before they are ready. I and most other people in the field looked at that and thought that these guys were getting a crash course in how to release results. The rule is: you don’t show anything until you are ready. You keep it hidden. You don’t talk about it. You don’t even acknowledge the existence of an analysis unless you are actually releasing results you are ready for the world to get its hands on and play with it as it may.
I’m sure something like that has happened since, but I’ve not really noticed it. But a paper out on the archives on April 1 (yes) seems to have done it again. This is a paper on a Z’ set of models that might explain a number of the small discrepancies at the Tevatron. A number of the results they reference are released and endorsed by the collaborations. But there is one source that isn’t – it is a thesis: Measurement of WW+WZ Production Cross Section and Study of the Dijet Mass Spectrum in the l-nu + Jets Final State at CDF (really big download). So here are a group of theorists, basically, announcing a CDF result to the world. That makes a bit uncomfortable. What is worse, however, is how they reference it:
In particular, the CDF collaboration has very recently reported the observation of a 3.3 excess in their distribution of events with a leptonically decaying W+- and a pair of jets .
I’ve not seen any paper released by the CDF collaboration yet – so that above statement is definitely not true. I’ve heard rumors that the result will soon be released, but they are rumors. And I have no idea what the actual plot will look like once it has gone through the full CDF review process. And neither do the theorists.
Large experiments like CDF, D0, ATLAS, CMS, etc. all have strict rules on what you are allowed to show. If I’m working on a new result and it hasn’t been approved, I am not allowed to even show my work to others in my department except under a very constrained set of circumstances*. The point is to prevent this sort of paper from happening. But a thesis, which was the source here, is a different matter. All universities that I know of demand that a thesis be public (as they should). And frequently a thesis will show work that is in progress from the experiment’s point of view – so they are a great way to look and see what is going on inside the experiment. However, now with search engines one can do exactly the above with relative ease.
There are all sorts of potential for over-reaction here.
On the experiment’s side they may want to put restrictions on what can be written in a thesis. This would be punishing the student for someone else’s actions, which we can’t allow.
On the other hand, there has to be a code-of-standards that is followed by people writing papers based on experimental results. If you can’t find the plot on the experiment’s public results pages then you can’t claim that the collaboration backs it. People scouring the theses for results (as you can bet there will be more now) should get a better understanding of the quality level of those results: sometimes they are exactly the plots that will show up in a paper, other times they are an early version of the result.
Personally, I’d be quite happy if results found in theses would stimulate conversation and models – and those could be published or submitted to the archive – but then one would hold off making experimental comparisons until the results were public by the collaboration.
The internet is here – and this information is now available much more quickly than before. There is much less hiding-thru-obscurity than there has been in the past, so we all have to adjust.
* Exceptions are made for things like job interviews, students presenting at national conventions, etc.
Update: CDF has released the paper…