APS News

APS Task Force Suggests "Physics Today" Changes

Physics TodayPhysics Today magazine continues to receive high marks from APS members, who rate the publication the most valued of the Society's membership benefits, an APS task force concluded in its final report, which was accepted by the APS Executive Board in June. However, there is room for improvement, most notably in expanding the breadth of technical coverage and shortening many non-science articles. The monthly magazine, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, is published by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) and distributed to APS members, as well as to members of other AIP societies.

Chaired by APS Past President Burton Richter (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center), the task force was charged with evaluating the content and style of Physics Today and suggesting ways in which it could better serve the diverse interests and needs of APS members. "The special role of Physics Today as a unifying force in physics is widely appreciated within the APS," the report stated in its introduction. "However, as the physics community grows ever larger and more diverse in personnel and practice, the [magazine's] special role becomes both increasingly important and challenging to meet."

Readership surveys continue to reveal a high level of satisfaction with the magazine, among APS members. Based on data collected from AIP surveys of member societies in recent years, the majority of APS members (65%) view the magazine as their most important member benefit and feel they would "lose out" if they didn't receive it compared to 36% of members from other AIP societies.

The main concern in terms of improving service to APS members is that a larger fraction of editorial effort needs to be focused on the scientific coverage. Specifically, more science articles should be published per issue, with more of an effort to cover all of physics over the course of a multi-year cycle. The 1995 Physics Today readership survey indicated that the magazine's readers consider science coverage to be the most important part of Physics Today. Physics Today editors plan to increase the number of technical articles per issue from three to four. Some articles will continue to focus on the history of physics and science policy.

The task force also felt that until recently, some articles had become too technical for readers lacking first-hand acquaintance with the subject area being reviewed. The recent addition of the "Physics News Update" section makes a good complement to the "Search and Discovery" section. Many articles in the latter were considered too long, and a lack of some subjects, such as biophysics, was noted. The task force suggested recruiting "stringers" or contributing editors to help broaden the range of expertise. The "Reference Frame" column received high marks from the task force members. Among the non-science features, the task force deemed the "Washington Reports", "Physics Community" and "Letters" sections most valuable to the magazine's readers.

Because editorial effort is the primary limiting factor in terms of broader coverage, the task force felt that the focus of existing staff should be shifted from sections of lower priority coverage, such as book reviews and obituaries, which the task force deemed overlong. One recommendation was that the APS consider funding a Science Writing Fellowship to increase the Physics Today staff available to work on the science portion of the magazine.

The task force also briefly examined the relationship of Physics Today with its sister publication, The Industrial Physicist (TIP), and concluded that the two publications successfully satisfy complementary needs for the physics community. Surprisingly, a large portion of TIP's 50,000 readers are not members of AIP societies, making the publication a useful vehicle to attract new members to AIP organizations. To that end, the task force recommended establishing a cut-rate introductory membership offer for AIP societies to TIP subscribers.

Overall, despite the need for improvements in organization and efficiency, " Physics Today is doing a good job of serving the interests of the APS," the task force concluded in its report, noting that the magazine's Advisory Committee is in agreement with its findings and plans are underway to address the areas of concern.

Interestingly, the last paragraph of the task force report reads "In the long run, it would be best for the APS to take full responsibility for Physics Today, including its deficit. This is not likely to happen soon, but it is a possibility that should remain in our minds."

The other members of the APS task force to evaluate Physics Today were Julia Philips, Sandia National Laboratory; Ray Baughman, Allied Signal Inc.; John Pribram, Bates College; Ron Walsworth, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and John Wilkins, Ohio State University.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin