Solve one puzzle, raise a million more questions

Allow yourself a cheer: we might have found the God particle. At the end of July, physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern in Geneva gathered to dissect the results they have gathered so far. The most exciting news was that a blip in one of the detectors looked like the signature of the elusive Higgs boson particle, which is more popularly (and much less accurately) known as "the God particle".

The Higgs boson is thought to be the ultimate source of mass and explains why we are subject to gravity. It is the last piece of the puzzle in the standard model of particle physics, the most complete theory of how everything comes together to make matter.

So, when researchers from another of the detectors announced that they had seen something similar, there was still more cause for excitement - until the physicists poured rather a lot of cold water over the celebrations, that is.

First, they said, it could be a statistical blip - a chance conjunction of insignificant particles that creates the illusion of the presence of a Higgs boson. To check, the physicists are now combining the data taken by both detectors in a way that will confirm or destroy the blip. This analysis should be complete by the end of August.

Second, they have to make sure that they didn't make a mistake when they decided, years ago, what they were looking for. After a collision, the Higgs boson particle exists for only a tiny fraction of a second before it turns into an array of other particles. These are the particles that leave a trace in the detectors, and the exact recipe for that array depends on the characteristics of the Higgs boson - characteristics that we don't yet fully understand.

The final twist in the tale is that finding the Higgs boson could justifiably be viewed as a disaster. Many physicists don't want to complete the standard model, because they know it falls short. It doesn't explain, for example, why the various forces, such as gravity and electromagnetism, have the strengths they do.

Bright squark

If you want answers to such questions, you have to look to another theory, known as "supersymmetry". This says that every fundamental particle has an as-yet-undetected partner. The electron has the selectron, the quark has the squark, and so on.

The theory behind this bigger zoo of particles and sparticles gives us a much more satisfying explanation of how everything in the universe works.
Supersymmetry doesn't mesh with the standard model; only one of them can be right. The trouble is, if supersymmetry is correct, we should have seen some of its particles by now.

The LHC has been smashing particles together at ever-increasing energies and has already covered the lowest energy range where we might have expected to see the signature particles of supersymmetry.

The situation is not yet catastrophic, because there are myriad versions of supersymmetry and not all of them have been ruled out. It does make things unsatisfyingly complex, though. If we've found the Higgs boson, that's great - but it

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold

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“Predatory” journals are distorting the brave new world of open science

An outbreak of new journals in recent years threatens the potential benefits of open-access science

The modern, digital era of peer-reviewed science is changing the way high-quality research is being released. As soon as a study has been validated for accuracy, it’s almost immediately published online and covered by a dozen websites before the end of the working day. It can create a sense of collaboration, with more people finding ways to tackle serious challenges such as cancer and climate change. Or it can increase global competitiveness, with discoveries leading to new products and services.

However, there’s been a huge proliferation in recent years of new, obscure open-access journals, potentially hindering quality and verification. A new study published in BMC Medicine is claiming that such “predatory” journals are drastically altering the landscape for the worse, by “preying” on both readers and potential scientists throughout the process. (Incidentally, we can trust BMC Medicine on this. It’s one of many periodicals from BioMed Central, a well-respected subsidiary of the science publishing giant Springer Nature.)

The business model for journal publishing organisations varies. Most are commercial businesses, charging authors a fee to have their papers scrutinised and published, while also charging other individual readers or groups, such as universities, for access. Non-profit groups, like PLOS, only charge authors who have submitted their manuscripts, eventually releasing papers into the public after a round of fact-checking.

This can sometimes become a long, arduous process, given that a journal’s reputation is at stake, especially when publishing high-profile research or claims. We don’t have to look too far back to remember the implosion at the Lancet, with Andrew Wakefield’s unsubstantiated claims of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Some people (especially friends across the pond) still believe this nonsense. With this in mind, you can see how and why readers can become the ultimate target for misleading declarations in journals.

But it’s understandable why there’s an enormous weight behind having research published. It allows an academic to improve their future job prospects and salary levels, all while giving their work the approval they seek. After all, an academic’s list of published work is an extension of their CV. Just look at any university lecturer’s online profile and you’ll see a string of links to their published research on the same page.

This pressure to publish as much work as possible has led to an explosion in the number of articles by open-access publishers who carry between 10-99 different journals. Only four years ago, the market share was dominated by larger, long-established institutions who each carried 100 or more different journals, covering a range of scientific topics. The study also found “predatory” journals have increased the number of open-access articles from 53,000 in 2010 to approximately 420,000 from 8,000 various journals in 2014.

What may also be contributing to the pressure of becoming a well-cited author is the article processing charge (APC) amounts by “predatory” journals. Unsurprisingly, scientists want to save as much money as possible, with the average cost of publication in these publications approximately $178. This is a far cry from the many hundreds of dollars charged by widely-known and respected journals. For example, Scientific Reports, a journal offered by the powerful Nature Publishing Group, charges $1,495 to process a manuscript, excluding taxes. By having such low APCs, “predatory” publishers can make well-intentioned researchers victims just like their readers, at the same time as making money from them.

Where exactly are these new journals coming from? Investigators Professor Bo-Christer Björk and Cenyu Shen of Helsinki’s Hanken School of Economics note that 27 per cent of “predatory” publishers are based in India, 17.5 per cent in North America and 26.8 per cent in locations impossible to determine. It’s also telling that many of these journals often have the words “international” or “American” in their title in order to display a misleading sense of importance and prestige – something the study highlights.

What separates well-known journals from “predatory” ones is the often lengthy, tedious process it can take in order to publish a study. You can usually see this at the top of a research paper, with dates showing when it was submitted for review and also official publication.

However, even this can reveal major flaws within the peer-review system at some of the most prestigious science periodicals. This was proved by John Bohannon, correspondent for Science, who purposefully submitted fake documents riddled with major errors. In the end, the made-up study was accepted by 157 journals, and rejected by only 98. The story has its own Wikipedia page, so you know it’s true.

Creating hoaxes and half-truths about people or places is just part of everyday life with the internet. But this new (and reliable!) study is showing the possible negative outcome in the drive of pushing more science into the open. Perhaps it’s a small price to pay. Maybe we need to research it a bit more.