Personal Thoughts on the Nobel Prize in Physics 2023

A few weeks ago the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three scientists for their experimental work founding the field of attosecond science. (can you believe that “attosecond” is actually shown as a typo when drafting this?) This is 5 years after the 2018 prize, which I also wrote about in this blog, given for the chirped pulse amplification (CPA) technique. CPA enabled lasers to get to high intensities and was therefore a boon for atomic physics, plasma physics, and material science where scientists could now study their physical systems under new regimes of strong electric field. In my previous post I weakly predicted that the prize would later go to attoscience, although I only named one of the laureates, Ferenc Krausz, and I didn’t think it would only take 5 years.

Although my own work is closer to the content of the 2018 prize, I still feel massively motivated by this year’s. It brings a lot of attention to ultrafast science in general (I need to get funding in the coming year(s) …), and makes me feel like the work I’m doing is not just some obscure academic pursuit. Also, this year’s award is fully for attosecond science (instead of only half of 2018 going to CPA and the other half for optical tweezers), and the three laureates all have very illustrious and prolific careers, so the award is not necessarily for just one discovery like it was in 2018. Lastly, also like in 2018, there is another female laureate. I’m not saying there is any causal connection, but ultrafast science contributing to two out of five female laureates in history makes me proud.

It’s interesting how my thoughts are different for this year’s prize compared to 2018. I was actually more excited by the result this year, and followed the press afterwards much more closely, but internally I also have more misgivings. I acknowledged before and always have that all prizes are flawed and don’t fully represent science or any given sub-field, and of course always can leave people out (Paul Corkum is this year’s example of that). I am now 5 years older, 5 more years spent in academia, and although I don’t yet have a permanent academic job, I feel more like a “peer” to this year’s laureates than ever before. Maybe it is that fact, that I understand the system of academic research more now, that I am at once more excited and more apprehensive after it is awarded in my field?

It is funny how science works; how fast it moves. These physics prizes are not some fancy high-energy particle physics theory that I don’t understand. They aren’t some crazy technique to synthesize something, or a new material found out of the blue. They are techniques and processes that I know well. And I am so close to them that, to be honest, the basics feel almost trivial to me now. To think that work like that is worth a Nobel prize is confusing. I know it is cool and was transformative, but at the same time it is also “easy” now. Of course I know that it wasn’t easy or trivial 25-30 years ago, but it puts science in perspective. How will the work of me and my colleagues be viewed in 25 years? Will it also be trivial? Will it have transformed something? And what will be the cutting edge then? It’s amazing how little I can contribute to answering these questions, especially the last one, and it reminds me how cool research is and how harrowing the passage of time is.

I also find myself thinking silly thoughts. If the prize was awarded for this, could my work eventually be Nobel worthy? Or does two prizes in ultrafast mean that they won’t give another prize and so I therefore cannot get one myself? These are just ridiculous questions, of course, but the broader question is: How much should we use these prizes as motivation? And this is the main source of my misgivings. A single fancy prize seems like one of the worst sources of motivation. And I see the quest for “fanciness” all around me, from the benign use of not so correct buzz words being used to describe everything, to the more hurtful cases of the impact and reach of results being blatantly overblown. I see well-known professors getting almost every paper published in the glossy journals, when it is clear that not every one is worth it. Not to mention grant money. How much of these toxic practices, ever-present in academic research, is due to the pursuit of research fame and fancy prizes? We are all human, so I’m not blaming myself or others for being excited (in fact, it’s definitely a great thing, especially for non-scientists to get a view into cutting-edge science), but I feel that we should moderate ourselves a bit when it comes to the effect of these prizes on our work. But will I get left behind if I don’t play the game too?

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Favorite Photonics Publications of 2022

This is an exercise that I really enjoy, reviewing the publications that got me excited over the past year. There are a few “big deal” results, that may have even made it into the general press, but there are also really specific results that I care about because they are close to what I work on. So, this is a completely biased, subjective, and incomplete list (excluding my own work this time) of my favorite optics and photonics publications of 2022.

A trio of papers reported using plasma acceleration to produce free-electron laser light. This is intimately related to my PhD work (although these results are not from my old team). The first results of this kind came in 2021 from a Chinese team, and these three are significant advancements beyond that work.

25 May, Nature
Free-electron lasing with compact beam-driven plasma wakefield accelerator
Using an electron-plasma accelerator, an italian team produced free-electron laser light for the first time in a proof-of-principle fashion.

29 November, Physical Review Letters
Stable Operation of a Free-Electron Laser Driven by a Plasma Accelerator
The same team as above seeded their beam-driven plasma accelerator-based FEL with some of the original laser light and could achieve much higher stability.

05 December, Nature Photonics
Seeded free-electron laser driven by a compact laser plasma accelerator
A German and French collaboration used a laser-plasma accelerator to drive a seeded FEL, essentially combining the results of 2021 with those of the Italian team.

Another trio of papers were published together on August 8th reporting on a big jump in performance of laser-driven fusion at the National Ignition Facility in the US. Now, there is an even bigger result apparently achieved on 05 Dec where they exceeded yet another criteria, but there isn’t a paper to link to yet. Nuclear fusion is thought to be a limitless, safe, and clean option for energy production in the next century, and there are two main methods to achieve it: laser-driven or magnetic confinement. In the past few years there are significant private-sector efforts to try other methods.

Physical Review Letters
Lawson Criterion for Ignition Exceeded in an Inertial Fusion Experiment

Physical Review E
Design of an inertial fusion experiment exceeding the Lawson criterion for ignition
Experimental achievement and signatures of ignition at the National Ignition Facility

There were significant advancements in demonstrating spatio-temporal shaping of ultrashort laser pulses, either with specific toroidal structure or arbitrarily.

02 June, Nature Photonics
Toroidal vortices of light

01 July, Nature Photonics
Observation of toroidal pulses of light

29 August, Nature Photonics
Synthesis of ultrafast wavepackets with tailored spatiotemporal properties

26 October, Science Advances
Synthesizing ultrafast optical pulses with arbitrary spatiotemporal control

Along with a very cool new technique combining compressed sensing with space-time pulse characterization (for which I wrote a comment article):

02 August, Light: Science & Applications
Single-shot compressed optical field topography

Logan Wright and colleagues wrote two giant reviews on multi-mode nonlinear/ultrafast technologies and physics, which will surely be the references for the coming years.

19 July, Optica
Nonlinear multimode photonics: nonlinear optics with many degrees of freedom

08 September, Nature Physics
Physics of highly multimode nonlinear optical systems

There was also a really interesting roadmap article on multi-mode light shaping, combining the expertise and viewpoints of many authors, and I luckily got to contribute to a more recent roadmap on spatio-temporal light (still in review).

early January, Journal of optics
Roadmap on multimode light shaping

Lastly, the nascent field of multi-mode integrated photonics has two interesting papers that also involve photonic micoresonators.

06 January, Nature Photonics
Optically reconfigurable quasi-phase-matching in silicon nitride microresonators

14 December, Science Advances
Photo-induced cascaded harmonic and comb generation in silicon nitride microresonators

This is just a subset of the papers I found interesting this year, and excludes the most technical papers that I’ve been reading. And I also am annoyed that almost everything is from “glossy” journals like Nature, Science, Optica, etc. But that’s the way it is, and it’s partially because I exclude the most technical works that other journals aren’t represented.

Do you have other favorite photonics publications from 2022? Let me know in the comments.

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Authorship in academic publishing

Besides all of the problems there may be with academic publishing from the point of view of readers, editors, and authors (in general) there are also often specific issues related to authorship on scientific papers and the related level of attributed credit for the work. To non-academics this may seem like a weird issue, but especially to students and members of academic teams lower on the ladder of power, it can seem like the biggest issue there is. It manifests in different ways in different fields of study, but most issues come about due to oversized egos and lack of communication.

As a physicist, I’ve experienced this myself. This is because in physics, at least in optical physics and photonics, the order of authors on the first page of an article (and therefore the webpage) matters a lot and confers meaning. The first author is the person who’s done most of the work and can answer any question about the paper (usually a student). The second author generally did slightly less work, or at least the second-largest amount of work. The last author is generally the senior author and the person who had the original idea and supervised the work (and got funding), but maybe didn’t step foot in the lab or run any code. Between those known positions it gets less clear, but generally the later you are listed the less work you’ve done and the less “credit” you will receive from the community, except for the last author (or the last few authors if it is a collaboration). If you know a field intimately or know a research group well, then you can probably tell a lot by the list of authors.

But even the few rules I listed may not apply to all physics papers. If the author list is very short or very long it’s hard to get any meaning from the order of authors and they may use a different strategy. Some large physics collaborations (tens, hundreds, or thousands of coauthors) will just list authors alphabetically and always list everyone in the collaboration regardless of who did what. Sometimes though, the first author is the main author and then everyone else is alphabetical. In these cases you can imagine that it’s no longer where you are on a paper (or even whether you are listed as an author on a paper) that gets you credit, but rather giving seminars, presenting at conferences, or word-of-mouth.

But it can get even more confusing when you go to the social sciences. Apparently in academic economics students and assistants are almost never listed on the author list, even if they did the majority of the work, and rather listed in a short acknowledgements section at the end of the manuscript. This is in contrast to physics where generally anyone that contributed significantly will be on the list. Conversely in some fields manuscripts usually only have one main author (for example a doctoral student or a young researcher), like in history or literary analysis, and the senior professor is just known to have supervised them.

This makes it clear that authorship can be important, although it surely is sometimes overemphasized in grant proposals or in CVs, but also that it is not a trivial thing to decide on. If one is being fair it not only requires first an honest and correct assessment of each contribution, but also a detailed knowledge of the expectations of the community for how that should be communicated in the list of authors. On the other side of the coin, if one wants to be unfair then it is easy to take advantage of the complexity and the unspoken rules to get more credit than deserved, or to take away credit from others. This is of course especially true for those in power who can decide unilaterally and have superior knowledge of the rules and norms.

Some physics journals have methods available to add nuance or at least add information to authors’ contributions. Journals from the publisher Nature generally have a paragraph at the end that lists the individual contribution of each author, which should in principle be agreed upon by all authors beforehand. This allows it to be clear that one author did a lot of work and another author just prepared some samples or something like that—regardless of the author order (not to say there is anything wrong with making samples, but there can be a clear difference between the level of contribution). Some journals also allow the addition of an asterisk that denotes equal contribution between two or more of the first-listed authors (however, if they aren’t listed alphabetically, then the first listed author still probably contributed slightly more, right?). But none of these methods are perfect themselves: they might just shift the argument from author order to deciding something else, and are still subject to abuse by those in power. But, they are a step in the right direction, and add nuance for those that are looking closely enough. On the other hand, some propose radically to always list authors alphabetically to avoid confusion. But wouldn’t this obscure the credit that young researchers need?

My biggest advice for any reader is to learn the norms of their own field and to not hesitate to be open and upfront about them when entering into any academic relationship (a new supervisor or a new collaboration). These discussions can always be a bit thorny, and tact will always make it easier, but it is better to speak about it early and awkwardly, but openly, than to talk about it when it’s too late. Supervisors should also make it clear that they understand these issues and they will be fair and transparent. This won’t stop people from being unhappy sometimes, so a supervisor may still need to make a final decision—there are outsized egos at all levels and it’s hard to stay unbiased—but by being open and transparent it decreases the chances of something going wrong.

Probably any physicist reading this already knows everything, but for anyone else: next time you see a paper linked in a recent news or tech article, realize that the order of the authors listed isn’t meaningless and was probably the result of careful thought, but also that it’s not always a fair representation. Like anything, there’s more than meets the eye.

Are there any outside-the-box authorship methods that you know of? Comment below!

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Problems with academic publishing

I wrote almost one year ago why I thought Plan S wasn’t the right solution for moving towards more open access to scientific publications. I generally stand by my points made in that post, but since then there have been some changes in Plan S, along with a generally more broad application of certain rules in the spirit of Plan S. As I said then, this is definitely a good thing, but I still have some reservations. But I don’t want any reader to think that I am somehow defending the current state of affairs in academic publishing. In fact, as someone who currently is a participant both as an author and reviewer, I would say that it is in quite a bad state. Here I outline some of the problems.

(I am writing this as a physicist/engineer working primarily on optics, so some nuances may not apply to other fields. But based on anecdotes from others, many of the below problems are general.)

Problems for readers:

Many academic papers, of which the work was funded by public money, are not available to be read by the general public.

This was discussed at length in my Plan S article, why it is often bad, but not always as bad as people make it out to be. Besides Open Access (articles being freely available without subscription) not being the default, it reflects a larger problem of academic publishing becoming corporate rather than society-focused. More people are starting to use social media and blogs to disseminate their work more broadly, for free, and for a lay audience, and I think that’s great.

It is impossible to keep up with the increasing volume of academic and scientific articles.

This reverberates to other realms, but for scientists and readers of academic papers, it is just impossible to keep up. Gone are the days when a single volume would arrive in the mail and you could skim all of the papers that interested you (this was probably already gone in the 60s). It reflects a mostly good trend – we are advancing knowledge at a faster rate – but it also is a product of unnecessarily frequent publications (due to incentives on authors and privately-owned publishers to publish more and more).

Problems for authors:

There is an increasing pressure from institutions, either for hiring or promotions, to publish more and more papers.

Colleges and universities are more and more requiring or demanding that researchers publish more frequently. This takes away the power from the researcher to decide what is relevant to publish. It also may incentivize certain bad practices – salami slicing work to get more publications, adding authors who didn’t contribute (“prestige authors”), or at the most extreme paying to get authorship.

There is an increasing pressure from institutions, either for hiring or promotions, to keep track of metrics that can be considered as proxies for an author’s success in publishing.

The first and most well-known metric for an author is the h-index. This measures the maximum number (h) such that one has published (h) papers with a minimum of (h) citations. It is supposed to encapsulate both the number and quality of an author’s publications and therefore be a good metric by itself. Along with the h-index, total number of citations is often used for assessment. There is nothing wrong with either of these numbers, and I agree that they can probably tell you something about the quality of an author (compared to others in a similar field). However, the problem is with metrics like these being used for hiring and promotions. When an institution blindly uses numbers like these, it may miss the bigger picture – amount and quality of teaching and supervision, service to the greater academic community, outreach and communication, diversity and inclusion, etc, etc. It also may incentivize the same bad practices as above, in addition to practices like unnecessary self-citation.

But beyond these metrics, some institutions go even further to push for publications in high impact-factor journals. The impact-factor (IF) is a metric that measures how often an average paper is cited in a given journal, and a publication in a high IF journal is considered fancier, more important, and more visible. The first problem is that using this for measuring an author’s success is just completely wrong – the IF measures the quality of a journal and is useful for a publisher to brag about their journal, but is not a measure of the quality of a given paper! And secondly, it also creates perverse incentives to hype up results and write papers in a flashy way to get into better journals, which actually may make the paper less readable.

Publishing is easier for already successful authors

The system is not perfect, and editors and reviewers will never be able to assess a paper on only its scientific merit. There will always be biases, and due to such a high volume of papers and the fact that reviewers and many editors work for free, there is limited time and motivation. Therefore, if the editor gets a paper on their desk written by a famous author, it’s more likely to be sent on to reviewers and reviewers are more likely to forgive small mistakes, give benefit of the doubt, be afraid of challenging things too much, and probably also spend less time time on their review. This means that it is much easier to publish if you are an established author (beyond the fact that they probably also have more resources), and that the barrier for entry is high. This is even more true for minorities, women, researchers from lesser-known institutions or countries with less-established research in a given field, or any researcher with a smaller support system.

Problems for reviewers:

It is a thankless job to review papers.

Following up on previous points, the reviewers who assess whether a paper is suitable for publication in a certain journal have a thankless job. This is almost never paid, often requires navigating websites for different journals that all have a different procedures and formats, and usually is time-sensitive and anonymous. It is made even worse by the fact that this work, done for free, is done in the framework of the increasingly corporate publishing world. The only saving grace, and the reason why I still routinely review papers, is because I need them for my own papers and I think I do a good job. If I want 3 reviewers for each of my papers, then it means I should review at least three times as many papers as I submit – oof. There are improvements on the way or already implemented at many publishers, but I don’t expect it to be paid work any time soon, so the reality is we should keep doing it for the sake of the system.

Problems for journal editors:

It is hard to ensure the proper functioning of the peer-review process.

Lastly, even editors have a hard time. There are so many papers coming across their desks that it is hard to truly assess them, and it is harder and harder to get enough reviewers (not to mention good reviewers). Only at the highest level of editorship at private publishing houses are these positions paid, and even there they have these same problems. I’m not asking for sympathy for these people in power, but we do rely on them to keep the peer-review process working so that we know what we’re reading is valid, and we know where to go looking for high quality work.

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, so please comment below if you have something to add.

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Photonics news and publications so far in 2021

Here is a brief “digest” of photonics/lasers/physics news and publications that interested me so far in 2021. Feel free to make a comment if you have reactions or any of your own news or publications to add.

Photonics news:

PhotonHUB Europe was launched, a “one-stop-shop open access to photonics innovation support for a digital Europe”.

Imec in Leuven, Belgium demonstrated 20 nm pitch lithography with a laser-based high-harmonic generation system.

The European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC) has created a Photonics Index so that European investors can finally invest directly in the growing photonics sector.

The EuPRAXIA project, a pan-European project to develop a laser-plasma-based particle accelerator (or two) in Europe has been included as part of the ESFRI Roadmap 2021.

A very interesting report was published by Mckinsy & Company “The next wave of innovation in photonics” summing up the recent advances and trends in photonics technologies.

Photonics publications:

04 January, Nature Communications
Real-time multispeckle spectral-temporal measurement unveils the complexity of spatiotemporal solitons

I don’t even fully understand this paper yet, but I think there is a lot to learn and the technique looks very powerful.

24 February, Optical Engineering
Structured light for ultrafast laser micro- and nanoprocessing

Besides basic science, laser processing is a big application of structured light and this article explains it perfectly.

11 March, Physical Review Letters
Bayesian Optimization of a Laser-Plasma Accelerator

Former colleagues of mine from Hamburg tuned all available input parameters of their laser-plasma accelerators to optimize the ouput electrno beams.

18 March, Physical Review A
Focused fields of ultrashort radially polarized laser pulses having low-order spatiotemporal couplings

I developed a general framework for describing very complex shaped vector beams.

26 April, Physical Review Letters
Optimal Beam Loading in a Laser-Plasma Accelerator

Again former colleagues from Hamburg, they found a unique operating regime of a laser-plasma accelerator that produced very low energy spread beams.

10 May, Nature Photonics
Temporal solitons in a coherently driven active resonator

The team at the ULB expanded upon seminal work from a decade ago in passive resonators to show that temporal solitons exist in driven active resonators as well.

17 June, Optica
Spectral vector beams for high-speed
spectroscopic measurements

A very interesting concept of beams that have a varying polarization with wavelength rather than in space. I’m very curious of the wider implications on light-matter interaction and am following it closely.

9 July, OSA Continuum
Spatio-spectral characterization of ultrashort laser pulses with a birefringent delay line

We demonstrated a version of the INSIGHT technique using a much more simple and robust setup involving optical wedges made of calcite, which is naturally birefringent. We used this technique for spatio-spectral characterization of laser pulses, but the company NIREOS in Italy has many more applications in mind.

21 July, Nature
Free-electron lasing at 27 nanometres based on a laser wakefield accelerator

A holy-grail use of laser-based accelerators was achieved – FEL operation, i.e. exponential gain in undulators, producing 27 nm radiation. This was a competition between many groups and I’m sure more results from across the world will follow.

(There is bias intended, as always, so this isn’t an authoritative list on the “best” of this year, just my favorites.)

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Unconventional uses for lasers and optics

I think many people don’t understand how and why lasers and optics are important in our lives. We all probably know about CD readers and laser hair removal, but there are a myriad of applications and uses for lasers that are surprising and important. Here is a list of a few developing applications over the past few years, which even managed to surprise me!

Cleaning up beach trash -> Atlantic article

Marking fruits and vegetables -> Guardian article

Detecting Nuclear materials -> UMich article

Sensing their surroundings -> Physics Today article

Detecting earthquakes -> Physics Today article

Vaporizing space debris -> Physics Today articleFuturism article

Unearthing lost cities -> NPR article

Protecting olives from diseases -> Guardian article

Powering tiny robots -> Redbull article

Detecting water leaks -> TimesLIVE article

Measuring the height of Antarctica -> article

Protecting crops from birds -> NPR articlePoultryworld article

Killing sea lice on farmed salmon -> Salmonbusiness article

Saving male chicks from being culled -> Physicsworld article

Detecting ripe avocados -> Newatlas article

Getting rid of pesky weeds -> LaserZentrum Hannover article

Which of these was the most surprising for you?

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My presentation at HILAS 2020

Yesterday, Monday 16 Nov 2020, I presented a talk “Electron acceleration with high-intensity radially-polarized laser beams having spatio-temporal couplings” at the remote High-intensity Lasers and High-field Phenomena (HILAS) meeting, part of the High-brightness Sources & Light-driven Interactions Congress. This was supposed to be in Prague earlier this year, but of course due to the ongoing pandemic it was done virtually. I have to give credit to OSA for putting on such a good virtual meeting (CLEO in May was also exceptional), and for the program chairs of HILAS for putting together my session with such topical and related talks.

I presented in the session “High-field Re-scattering Physics, Relativistic Nonlinear Phenomena, Intense Pulse Propagation and Filamentation”, which despite the long and complicated name was the home for a very nice set of talks about complex phenomenon with complex, high-field laser light. This included great talks from Dustin Froula’s group at the LLE in Rochester, NY, USA and from Cedric Thaury’s group at the LOA in Palaiseau, France.

You can see the entire session here, or you can see a practice run of my talk below.

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Interesting open source and free tutorial sites

I just wrote about how I think Plan S is not the right solution for open science. This may be a controversial opinion, but rather than focusing on that, I want to focus on what we can add to the current status quo without having to make a total upheaval and without potential unintended consequences. That is, namely, self-published, high quality, open source and free tutorials and explanatory posts alongside peer-reviewed articles. Here are a few examples.

Adaptive Optics for Microscopy – Organized by Martin Booth, the PI of the Dynamic Optics and Photonics Group at Oxford, this site may be the gold standard of what I am imagining. It is mostly technical guidelines and practical tutorials, but each post has a DOI and clear authorship, and it is done in a clear, organized, and transparent way. A site like this with a larger number of summaries for laypeople is exactly what I have in mind for enabling open science. – Another gold standard by Sébastien Popoff, a CNRS researcher at the Institut Langevin in Paris. The home page feed has a title, link to a manuscript, a big clear figure, and a short summary. Then the detailed post has more, large and clear figures, and a longer summary of the work. If every researcher had a blog/website like this science would be so much easier to follow and available to all.

Complex Light – A blog and website by Claudio Conti from La Sapienza in Rome. His research is very theoretical and advanced, so these explainers are even more important to communicate the work. Another example that we can all model our own websites and communications on.

These are only three examples, albeit very good ones, and are only in the areas of optics and photonics. Do you know of any more examples in the same fields or other fields?

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Why I think Plan S is not the right solution

There has been a lot of discussion about open science in the last years, and rightfully so. With the ever-increasing importance of science and technology in our everyday lives, and especially the public interest in the science regarding the understanding of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the public should demand transparency and accessibility of its funding agencies and scientists. One proposed solution is the Plan S. Plan S proposes to have funding agencies require within their grant agreements that scientific results achieved due to their funding be published in Open Access journal articles (Open Access means that it is free for anyone to download – no subscription fee). But beyond that, Plan S also demands that the Open Access journals be only Open Access, i.e. the journal cannot give an option to be Open Access or not (“hybrid”), it must publish only Open Access articles. There are many specifics involved, and recently Plan S has proposed a softer set of requirements, but I hope here to discuss some points that I don’t often see.

I am quite skeptical of Plan S for many reasons. Some of these reasons have to do with my own situation and my own biases – I am an early career researcher with very limited funding (actually right now I have no job, but even if/when I have a contract in the near future I will definitely have limited discretionary funds). But before I detail my criticisms, I do not mean to be completely opposed to the idea either. I will detail some recommendations that I have as an alternative because it is clear that if some journals want to charge close to 10k for Open Access, then we need to have more options or at least better common practices.

The reason that Plan S is opposed to hybrid journals is because they believe that hybrid journals do not help transition to more Open Access quickly enough. Basically if you have to pay a journal to be Open Access, but you aren’t required too, then the incentive is only there for certain well-funded labs. But, Plan S policies offer their own incentives that are worse for the research world.

Having paying to publish as the norm creates a perverse market incentive for the publishers. In the current system the journals that have the best work and do the best editing can charge the highest subscription fee. Their incentive therefore is to provide the most value to the reader (not the most value to the author, as all authors can attest). But, if the model shifts such that authors submitting papers pay a fee, then the journals have the added incentive to publish as many papers as possible. This incentive could lead to the peer-review process degrading in favor of quickly publishing articles, well-funded labs salami slicing their work to publish more papers, journals introducing fees to “fast-track” your peer-review, and maybe most importantly, less ability for a reader to discern what articles are worth reading and which journals are reputable sources.

Being required to pay for Open Access is most difficult for the least privileged researchers. This is a commonly made point, and one that speaks to my biases. If the model shifts from institutions paying subscriptions to individual researchers paying publishing fees, then the least privileged researchers are hurt the most. This applies to early-career researchers who haven’t yet secured significant grant funding, researchers from countries with worse science funding infrastructure, and even (yes) independent researchers that are not salaried. For all of these people a 10k fee is impossible, but even the 1-2k fee that is basically standard even at low-level journals is still not accessible. This is a really big deal for researchers themselves of course, but it is bad for society because it would contribute to a less equitable and fair environment for researchers to succeed and a pool of open access paper that do not represent all of the science out there. Maybe some universities or institutes will make it a policy to pay the fees to publish Open Access on behalf of researchers, and this is what I propose is also required when a funding body joins Plan S, but as far as I know this is not anywhere near the norm.

The banning of hybrid journals is just side-stepped by publishers. Publishers are smart and will take advantage of a loophole when they see one. So, if you submit to Journal X (a hybrid journal), your paper is accepted, but you then request Open Access, the publisher transfers your manuscript to Journal X Gold (an open access journal that is not hybrid – a “Gold” Open Access journal). This way you fulfill your requirement under Plan S and the publisher has still attracted you to their journals. There is effectively no difference between this scenario and just publishing Open Access in the hybrid Journal X, but a needless journal has been added to the already diluted and overfull world of publishing with tens of journals for every topic. Why not simply allow hybrid journals?

Mandating strict policies from top-down is against the spirit of academic freedom. These days researchers – even top-level researchers at prestigious institutions – depend almost exclusively on outside funding for their research. There are of course always restrictions on how the funds should be used, and for what, but generally not to the point that the funding bodies dictate the exact content of the work, how it is done, or where it is published. This is not the same academic freedom from decades ago where a university allows a tenured professor to do what they wish, but it is still something. The funding bodies give confidence to the researchers that they know best. Mandating where and how researchers should publish runs contrary to these principles that are already being eroded from all sides.

Having research articles accessible to the public is actually not the most important goal nor the most efficient. The goal of open research is to make the public benefit even more from the research being done at their cost. For me the most important step is not making technical research articles free to read for everyone. These articles are not meant for laypeople to read and are often not even meant for general scientists, but are meant to communicate important results to other specialists in a given field. These specialists are already working for institutions that have subscriptions and can already read the articles. What is very important for making science more open and efficient, however, is to make open source and readily available any and all details possible to replicate or expand upon a work: data, code, methods, etc, etc. In physics and optics at least, this is becoming the norm, and as far as I know is compatible with policies of almost all journals. Detailed supplementary materials (always Open Access even if the article is not) provide minute and boring details which in the past were often left out of articles; codes are more and more often put on github for all to see; there are more options to upload data to safe and reliable repositories, and complex data are more often in standard formats. What do I propose instead? I propose that instead of requiring that an article is open access, require that code, data, etc. is available immediately, and that a detailed summary for laypeople, written by the original authors, is posted publicly alongside the article when it’s published.

The content of articles can usually be found online anyway. With the increased use of the arXiv and bioRxiv preprint servers (and others for social sciences), many authors are uploading a raw form of their article before it is even submitted to a journal, completely free to read and archived long-term. Yes, this often must remain the version before peer review and before being put in a nice format, but all of the info is there, right? It is the info that is important anyway. For articles that make a big splash in the press there are going to be articles in magazines, on, or on the institute’s website, or on the scientists’ blogs. And lastly, if you are a layperson who just has to read the final published article, there are ways to do that (google it). If all of the information in a scientific article and sometimes almost the exact article itself are already available online, what is the added value of requiring open access for everyone. Of course this is not an argument against Open Access in general, but the point is what is to be gained by mandating Open Access from top-down when so much of the information is already available? And does it overshadow the other negatives above?

I strongly believe in the points above. I also see the point that science should not be constrained by the profit-driven motives and gatekeeping of the traditional subscription-based publishing houses. The current system is by no means perfect (I should make another post why not), but I also don’t want Open Access journals with low standards predating on researchers who just want to have more papers out there to get their next promotion. There are already many examples of a middle ground. OSA Publishing, publishing on optics and photonics for decades, has multiple Open Access journals (some of which were not always that way, but now have their entire library accessible) and is the publishing arm of a non-profit scholarly society. This seems to be a great approach, but they are understandably against Plan S. The journal Physical Review Accelerators & Beams – a journal mostly for research on particle accelerators – is fully Open Access due to contributions from research institutes and private companies (with no strings attached on the journal).

The stresses on researchers young and old to publish or perish is becoming only worse as the number of PhDs continues to increase without being met with new jobs, third-party funding becomes the norm, and universities rely upon incomplete metrics to make hiring and promotion decisions. Something must be done about this for sure, and I hope it will be, but let’s not make it worse by making it more expensive for researchers to publish and dictating where they can publish, when there are many other more efficient ways to make science more open, collaborative, and accessible. Plan S is doing a good job of sparking a debate and pushing researchers and publishers alike to have hard discussions and change common practices – for the better – but the specifics of Plan S are not the right solution.

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Favorite Publications, Q1+Q2+Q3 2020

Well… what a strange year 2020 has been so far. But, science publication is still going on, with many publishers not only continuing to work at full speed despite the workforce being largely at home, but some even working more to deal with the increase in submitted papers.

My favorite photonics and plasma physics publications so far in 2020 are below. There is definitely bias intended, as always, so this isn’t an authoritative list on the “best” of this year, just my favorite.

First my publications, of which one was finally published from my PhD times (a great result!) and four are from my PostDoc at CEA-Saclay:

7 February, Optics Express
Controlling the velocity of a femtosecond laser pulse using refractive lenses

We demonstrated the “flying focus” using a simple lens doublet made of exotic glasses.

9 March, Journal of the Optical of America B
Multipass cells: 1D numerical model and investigation of spatio-spectral couplings at high nonlinearity

A team at IOGS in Palaiseau compared models for multipass cell compressors (a hot topic in ultrafast optics). We did a complimentary measurement to show that the output did not have strong spatio-temporal couplings.

6 July, Optics Letters
On the importance of frequency-dependent beam parameters for vacuum acceleration with few-cycle radially polarized laser beams

I simulated the effects of the chromatic nature of diffraction on direct acceleration of electrons in vacuum with radial polarization. The effects are quite significant and therefore this must be taken in to account in the future.

18 August, Physical Review X
Decoding Sources of Energy Variability in a Laser-Plasma Accelerator

A very beautiful result from our team at Hamburg (during my PhD). We operated a laser-plasma accelerator for more than 24 hours and showed that a lot can be learned from a small set of measured parameters.

end-September, Journal of Optics
Spatio-temporal characterization of ultrashort laser beams: a tutorial

We made a very thorough review and tutorial of spatio-temporal couplings in ultrashort laser pulses and how to measure them. We hope it becomes a useful resource for scientists going forward.

And papers from across the world:

31 March, Physical Review Letters
Dephasingless Laser Wakefield Acceleration

An interesting contribution to the goal to overcome intrinsic limits on laser-wakefield acceleration.

8 April, Physical Review Accelerators and Beams
Machine learning for orders of magnitude speedup in multiobjective optimization of particle accelerator systems
9 April, Physical Review Accelerators and Beams
Temporal power reconstruction for an x-ray free-electron laser using convolutional neural networks

Machine learning, neural networks, particle accelerators, and FELs. This pair of papers is sweet.

3 June, Nature
Controlling free electrons with optical whispering-gallery modes
Coherent interaction between free electrons and a photonic cavity

This pair of papers in Nature made a splash in the community and are both very advanced and creative studies of the interaction of exotic ultrashort laser fields and free electrons.

9 June, Reviews of Modern Physics
Strong-field nano-optics

The most interesting, beast of an article in RMP this year. Very interesting combination of strong field physics and nanophotonics.

11 June, Physical Review Accelerators and Beams
Spectrotemporal control of soft x-ray laser pulses

Nice detailed study of the world-class and unique tunability of the FERMI FEL in Trieste.

22 June, Nature Photonics
Anomalous refraction of optical spacetime wave packets

The team from UCF keeps putting out very strange and surprising phenomenon from their STC wavepackets. This time it is diffraction that does not obey Snell’s law.

6 July, Nature Photonics
Phase-locked laser-wakefield electron acceleration

Spatio-temporal couplings and optimized laser-wakefield acceleration. What is not to love! Second paper this year to propose a solution, and once I get the time it will be very interesting to compare them in detail.

18 July, Nature Communications
Towards integrated tunable all-silicon free-electron light sources

This is a very curious work for me. I am very in to “light sources” and this was a new form of light source summarized and advanced in a very readable way. I want to look at the old derivations of Smith-Purcell radiation!

31 July, Reviews of Modern Physics
The physics of climate variability and climate change

I actually only saw this paper just now, but it is immediately on my stack of “not crucial, but I want to read” papers. We’ll see when I get to it, but in any case it is a very necessary and cool niche – climate science for physicists.

11 August, Advanced Science
The Complex Charge Paradigm: A New Approach for Designing Electromagnetic Wavepackets

Any paper that has “paradigm” in the title has to be interesting. Besides being an interesting way to compute propagating electromagnetic waves, this paper is a great perspective on exotic electromagnetics with a great reference list.

31 August, Communications Physics
Complete spatiotemporal and polarization characterization of ultrafast vector beams

The first demonstration of spatio-temporal and polarization characterization of an ultrashort pulse. It is sure to open up a new field a spawn even more complex and complete measurement devices. A great work.

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