e-Print Archive Forced to Pause

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

Like java junkies with an empty coffee pot, physicists are facing a few days without their primary source of news about research discoveries. A round-the-clock online physics journal that has become a mainstay of the field won't be publishing new papers today or tomorrow due to a cybersecurity shutdown at U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories.

The Los Alamos e-Print Archive (xxx.lanl.gov), begun in 1991, has become the favored outlet for researchers wanting to publicize new findings fast. Every week, scientists submit hundreds of drafts of technical papers, called preprints, that are almost instantly published by the service before they appear in peer-reviewed journals. Thanks to the service's quick turnaround and 24-hour availability, physicists everywhere routinely browse the submissions for the latest news in particle physics, cosmology, and astrophysics.

But last week, archive head Paul Ginsparg warned colleagues about a threat from a security crackdown at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the collection is based. Responding to charges that lax computer security at the lab had allowed Chinese agents to steal secrets, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson ordered the lab to suspend all computer operations on 21 and 22 June to allow staff to attend security training. While the clampdown hasn't prevented researchers from retrieving old papers, it will delay the posting of any new material until 23 June.

Archive addicts are relieved that the delay--the longest in the service's history--is only for 2 days. Says physicist Erick Weinberg of Columbia University in New York City: "Being without it for 1 or 2 days isn't a disaster, though 1 or 2 weeks would be." Its absence, he adds, isn't nearly as bad as having to live without coffee.

Posted in Physics, Scientific Community