The most important site in particle physics

With tens of thousands of particle physicists working around the world today, the biggest challenge a researcher can have is keeping up with what others are doing. The articles they write, the collaborations they form, the experiments they conduct – all of these things are part of the news. After all, high-energy particle physics is big business, not the domain of a few isolated people working in underground labs.

Particle physicists have a tool to help them do this. The INSPIRE database allows scientists to search for published articles by subject, author, scientific journal, which previous articles the authors have cited and which more recent articles have used as a reference.

“I don’t know of any other discipline with such a central tool as INSPIRE,” says Sünje Dallmeier-Tiessen, Information Specialist at CERN. If you are a high energy physicist, “everything related to your daily professional life, you can find there”.

Researchers in high energy physics and related fields use INSPIRE for their professional profiles, job search and promotional materials. They use it to keep track of other people’s research in their disciplines and to find good resources to cite in their own articles.

INSPIRE has been around in one form or another since 1969, explains Bernard Hecker, head of the INSPIRE part of SLAC. “So we have a high level of credibility with the people who use the service.”

INSPIRE contains up-to-date information on over one million articles, including those published in major journals. The INSPIRE database also interacts with arXiv, an open-access site that hosts articles regardless of whether they are published in journals or not. “We text everything [on the arXiv]then provide content-based search, and search based on specific algorithms that we run,” says Dallmeier-Tiessen.

In this way, INSPIRE is a powerful addition to arXiv, which itself provides access to many articles that would otherwise require expensive journal subscriptions or exorbitant one-time fees.

A lot of human labor is involved. The arXiv, for example, does not distinguish between two people with the same last name and the same first initial. “We have a strong interest in keeping profiles dynamic and disambiguating different researchers with similar names,” says Hecker.

To this end, the INSPIRE team reviews the author lists of published articles to match individual researchers with their correct institutions. This includes collaboration with the Institute of High Energy Physics in China, as well as cross-checking other databases.

The goal, says Hecker, is “to try to find the directly relevant stuff and not the stuff that isn’t.” After all, researchers will only use the site if it is useful, a complicated challenge that INSPIRE has consistently overcome. “We try to optimize the time searchers spend on the site.

Artwork by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Lexi Fodor

That’s what I call physics

Each January, the INSPIRE team publishes a list of the 40 most-cited papers in high-energy physics that year.

Looking at the list for 2015, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a slow year. The most frequently referenced articles were articles from previous years, some dating back just a few years, others dating back decades.

But even in years without hit discoveries like the Higgs boson or gravitational waves, INSPIRE’s list is still a useful insight into where the minds of the research community are focused.

In 2015, researchers gave priority to the study of the Higgs boson. The two most referenced articles of 2015 were articles announcing its discovery by researchers from the ATLAS and CMS detectors at the Large Hadron Collider. The INSPIRE “top 40” for 2015 also includes the original 1964 theoretical papers by Peter Higgs, François Englert and Robert Brout predicting the existence of the Higgs.

Another topic that stood out in 2015 was the cosmic microwave background, a pattern of light that could tell us about conditions in the universe just after the Big Bang. Four highly cited papers, including the third most cited, were from Planck’s cosmic microwave background experiment, with a fifth dedicated to the final WMAP cosmic microwave background data.

It seems that cosmology was on the minds of physicists. Two other main papers were the first measurements of dark energy from the late 90s, while two others described the results of the LUX and XENON100 dark matter experiments.

Image of catches from different labs plugged into book spin "Inspire"

Artwork by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Lexi Fodor

Open science, open data, open code

INSPIRE grew out of the Stanford Public Information Retrieval System (SPIRES), a database started at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in 1969, when the Internet was in its infancy.

After Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web at CERN, SPIERS was the first website hosted in the United States.

Like high-energy physics itself, the database is international and cooperative. SLAC partnered with the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the United States, DESY in Germany, and CERN in Switzerland, which now hosts the site, to create the modern version of INSPIRE. The newest member of the collaboration is IHEP Beijing in China. Institutions in France and Japan also collaborate on specific projects.

INSPIRE has changed a lot since its inception, and a new version will be released soon. The biggest change will expand INSPIRE’s database to include data and computer code repositories.

Starting this year, INSPIRE will integrate with the HEPDATA open data archive and the github code collaboration system to increase visibility of the data and code that scientists write. The INSPIRE team will also be rolling out a new interface, so it looks “less like something out of 1995,” Hecker says.

Since its inception as a way to share print articles via mail, INSPIRE continues to be a valuable resource for the community. With more and more papers being published each year and no sign of a decrease in the number of particle physicists working, the need to build on past research and build collaborations is greater than ever.

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