If one reads memoirs or biographies of physicists who made their great breakthroughs after, say, 1950, one is struck by how often one reads that “the referees rejected for publication the paper that later won me the Nobel Prize.” One example is Rosalyn Yalow, who described how her Nobel-prize-winning paper was received by the journals. “In 1955 we submitted the paper to Science.... The paper was held there for eight months before it was reviewed. It was finally rejected. We submitted it to the Journal of Clinical Investigations, which also rejected it.” (Quoted from The Joys of Research, edited by Walter Shropshire, p. 109). Another example is Günter Blobel, who in a news conference given just after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, said that the main problem one encounters in one’s research is “when your grants and papers are rejected because some stupid reviewer rejected them for dogmatic adherence to old ideas.” According to the New York Times (October 12, 1999, p. A29), these comments “drew thunderous applause from the hundreds of sympathetic colleagues and younger scientists in the auditorium.”
In an article for Twentieth Century Physics, a book commissioned by the American Physical Society (the professional organization for U.S. physicists) to describe the great achievements of 20th century physics, the inventor of chaos theory, Mitchell J. Feigenbaum, described the reception that his revolutionary papers on chaos theory received: Both papers were rejected, the first after a half-year delay. By then, in 1977, over a thousand copies of the first preprint had been shipped. This has been my full experience. Papers on established subjects are immediately accepted. Every novel paper of mine, without exception, has been rejected by the refereeing process. The reader can easily gather that I regard this entire process as a false guardian and wastefully dishonest. (Volume III, p. 1850). Earlier in the same volume on 20th century physics, in a history of the development of optical physics, the invention of the laser by Theodore Maiman was described. The result was so important that it was announced in the New York Times on July 7, 1960. But the leading American physics journal, Physical Review Letters, rejected Maiman’s paper on how to make a laser (p. 1426).
Scientific eminence is no protection from a peer review system gone wild. John Bardeen, the only man to ever have won two Nobel Prizes in physics, had difficulty publishing a theory in low-temperature solid state physics (the area of one of his Prizes) that went against the established view. But rank hath its privileges. Bardeen appealed to his friend David Lazarus, who was editor in chief for the American Physical Society. Lazarus investigated and found that “the referee was totally out of line. I couldn’t believe it. John really did have a hard time with [his] last few papers and it was not his fault at all. They were important papers, they did get published, but they gave him a harder time than he should have had.” (True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen, p. 300). Stephen W. Hawking is the world’s most famous physicist. According to his first wife Jane (Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen Hawking, p. 239), when Hawking submitted to Nature what is generally regarded as his most important paper, the paper on black hole evaporation, the paper was initially rejected. I have heard from colleagues who must remain nameless that when Hawking submitted to Physical Review what I personally regard as his most important paper, his paper showing that a most fundamental law of physics called “unitarity” would be violated in black hole evaporation, it, too, was initially rejected. (The word on the street is that the initial referee was the Institute for Advanced Study physicist Freeman Dyson.) Today it is known that the Hawaiian Islands were formed sequentially as the Pacific plate moved over a hot spot deep inside the Earth. The theory was first developed in the paper by an eminent Princeton geophysicist, Tuzo Wilson: “I … sent [my paper] to the Journal of Geophysical Research. They turned it down…. They said my paper had no mathematics in it, no new data, and that it didn’t agree with the current views. Therefore, it must be no good. . .
Philip Anderson, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics opines that “in the early part of the postwar [post-WWII] period [a scientist’s] career was science-driven, motivated mostly by absorption with the great enterprise of discovery, and by genuine curiosity as to how nature operates. By the last decade of the century far too many, especially of the young people, were seeing science as a competitive interpersonal game, in which the winner was not the one who was objectively right as [to] the nature of scientific reality, but the one who was successful at getting grants, publishing in Physical Review Letters, and being noticed in the news pages of Nature, Science, or Physics Today. . .
But the interesting question is, what caused the “excessive specialization and careerist sociology” that is making it very difficult for new ideas to be published in peer review journals? There are several possibilities. One is a consequence of Anderson’s observation that, paradoxically, more scientists can mean a slower rate of scientific advance. The number of physicists, for example, has increased by a factor of a thousand since the year 1900, when ten percent of all physicists in the world either won the Nobel Prize or were nominated for it. If you submitted a paper to a refereed journal in 1900, you would have a far greater chance of having a referee who was a Nobel Prize winner (or at least a nominee) than now. In fact, a simple calculation shows that one would have to submit three papers on the average to have an even chance that at least one of your papers would be “peer” reviewed by a Nobel Prize winner.
Today, to have an even chance of having a Nobelist for a referee, you would have to submit several hundred papers. Thus Albert Einstein had his revolutionary 1905 papers truly peer reviewed: Max Planck and Wilhelm Wien were both later to win the Nobel Prize in physics.
Today, Einstein’s papers would be sent to some total nonentity at Podunk U, who, being completely incapable of understanding important new ideas, would reject the papers for publication. “Peer” review is very unlikely to be peer review for the Einsteins of the world. We have a scientific social system in which intellectual pygmies are standing in judgment of giants. . .
Monday, May 7, 2007
Frank Tipler has written an intriguing paper questioning whether the current peer-review system is stifling science. Here are some pertinent extracts: