A tale of 2011
Many things happened in 2011, of which I can only be thankful. I wanted to consign one to record, which may otherwise be missed, because it is about a “failure” — or better said: a beautiful reaction to a disappointing realization.
Starting in August 2010, a student of mine, Thinh, had been studying a new class of protocols for quantum cryptography, inspired by a previous work. By April, he had managed to define the key mathematical objects to very general scenarios. This was his Final Year Project (FYP), which was awarded as “Outstanding” by the university. A few months later, together with Lana (post-doc), we prepared a paper and submitted to Physical Review Letters (PRL; for the unaware: one of the most prestigious journals for physics).
When the referee report came, the tone was expected: “good work but not of enough broad interest” — very common nowadays for quantum cryptography. The referee stressed how he/she liked very much our generalization, i.e. Thinh’s result. With a few modifications, we could have had the paper published in Physical Review A (PRA; a very good journal still, edited by the same society; a Tier 1 journal in NUS, for the sake of the bureaucrats who care about these classifications).
However, one of the small comments of the referee caught our attention: we realized that the family of protocols we had considered was uninteresting! In a nutshell, these protocols collect a lot of information, but then discard much of it and rely on the rest. Why should one do so?? In other words, all that we did was correct and even elegant, but the object of our study was sort of pointless.
Now you see the alternatives we were facing: (1) skip this awareness under the carpet, do the modifications suggested by the referees and submit to PRA, with quasi-certainty of being accepted; (2) forget about this paper and write rather a technical note, explaining why these protocols are not interesting, to be sent to a very specialized (i.e. less visible) journal. For me, there was no doubt that (2) was the correct course, but I let Thinh and Lana decide — and I am very proud to say that they took the right decision 🙂 The paper has duly been re-written and is under consideration in a specialized journal of our field.
Now comes the scary part of it. I told this story to several friends working in the academic world, over coffees or lunches or other informal meetings. Many of them, especially the younger one, were astonished: “Wow, you guys are so honest! I know many who would never had dropped the chance of publishing in a Tier 1 journal”. For myself, I am sure that Thinh and Lana have made a bigger step in their career by choosing the right course: if you keep your standards high, Tier 1 publications will come.
Happy New Year!