Rejected Papers That Won the Nobel Prize

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  • #2
Charles Link
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In general, I think people are somewhat quick to reject something that can't be found in a textbook. Even when Lord Rayleigh discovered Argon, it was met with much skepticism because an element that heavy was not supposed to be found in gaseous form.
 
  • #3
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In general, I think people are somewhat quick to reject something that can't be found in a textbook

I think you're confusing a popular acceptance of a theory/model with a particular journal/referee's acceptance of a particular paper. These are two different things. The article the OP posted describes the latter scenario:

"Here we outline 8 Nobel prize papers that were initially rejected by anonymous pre-publication peer review"

I think I may be qualified to speak on this issue as I am now in the process of refereeing a paper for a popular cognitive science journal. Here's the deal. When you are asked to referee a paper, you take it as a privilege and you take it seriously. Well, at least early in your career. You feel as though you have an important job to do and you want to look as though you are erudite, thorough, and saving the universe from crackpots (kind of like PF). So what's the result from that? Well, you've got to be clever and find faults in the paper you're refereeing or else you are not doing your job. You can't just say, "Hey, this is great, go ahead and publish it." No. That's going to make you look lazy and like you're not doing your job. Now, if you've been around a while and have a huge reputation, you may be able to get away with that, but for the most of us there's a certain amount of pressure to find fault in the papers we receive.

Back when I started writing an submitting papers to journals, I was constantly furious over referees' negative comments that seemed almost imbecilic in how they reached inappropriately beyond the scope of the article to find fault and errors with it. Now that I've been refereeing for a while I can see where those sentiments came from. Right or wrong, that's the way it is and to address the main theme of this thread I think this is the reason these gems of ideas often get trashed initially. It's just the nature of the game. We'd all like to think that scientists are so open minded and thirsting for truth that they are ready and receptive to new and exciting theories and interpretations of data. But that's not usually the case. The truth is more often that established scholars want to feel secure in their own understanding of things and don't want the apple cart to be upset, especially by some young hotshot. The young hotshot (such as myself at one time) really doesn't get this and it's frustrating for them. Why? Because oftentimes the young hotshot will adoringly reference what he feels to be his or hers inspirations work and will get unceremoniously shotdown by this idol.

On it's face it doesn't make a lot of sense when you're young but it makes much more sense when you look at it though the lens of someone older and more experienced.

A good example is the paper I'm reviewing now. This in my mind is the worst type of paper to review. I already reviewed this back in March. I gave it an "Accept with major revisions" review. The two other reviewers gave it a "Reject" review. There's four categories we have to choose from: "Accept," "Accept with minor revisions," "Accept with major revisions," and "Reject." Most of the time you do your review and you never hear about it again. But sure enough, they sent the paper back to me to review the revision. Ugg. I didn't particularly like the original article or the detail work that comes in when looking for flaws. Now I have to do it again? Did I seal my own fate by just not rejecting it outright? Again, though, as a referee, you're typically caught between the temptation just to give the paper a thumbs up, a pass, because you don't want to do the hard work of fact checking or critiquing it, or picking it apart to pieces because you feel that's what you're supposed to do. Almost always the latter scenario is the result, and most of the time we are excessively harsh if the paper is, in general, written in poor prose and/or disorganized, which typically first submissions are.

So, in any case, there's an insider's perspective on why these ground-breaking papers often get rejected initially.
 
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  • #4
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First, note that all this work was eventually published, showing that there is no censorship or collusion blocking new ideas, if the idea is correct.

Second, I would say that it shows, in a certain sense, that peer review works. It means that the bar for publishing revolutionary ideas is quite high, which is what is needed to keep the crackpot ideas at bay. It is similar to art, where the revolutionaries are sometimes not recognized until after they're dead, because they were too avant-garde. Hopefully, the scientific establishment is less conservative and the deserving get a Nobel prize before they die.

I think all researchers, even those like me who never did any Earth-shattering work, at one point banged their head on the wall after receiving reports for referees who didn't understand what the work was about. It is part of the game, and sometimes even an indicator that we don't always communicate our ideas very well.
 
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  • #6
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3. Nobel Prize in Physics (1969) awarded to Murray Gell-Mann for: "for his contributions and discoveries concerning the classification of elementary particles and their interactions"

Rejection: That was not my title, which was : Isotopic Spin and Curious Particles. Physical Review rejected "Curious Particles". I tried "Strange Particles", and they rejected that too. They insisted on : "New Unstable Particles".
That was not a rejection of the paper - they just wanted to change the title.
4. Nobel Prize in Medicine (1953) awarded to Hans Krebs for: The discovery of the citric acid cycle (aka the Krebs cycle)
Also not a rejection based on the paper - they just didn't have more space in the printed magazine for a few weeks.
8. Nobel Prize in Medicine (1977) awarded to Rosalind Yalow for: invention of the radioimmunoassay (RIA).
They thought the conclusion was too strong for the presented data. A weaker phrasing there could have lead to acceptance.


Anyway, rejections are not uncommon, and as it has been pointed out already: all those things did get published, by the second or third journal it has been sent to.
 
  • #7
Ibix
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If any idiot can publish on their service then the signal-to-noise plummets. But we can work around that - I'll provide a service where I read all the papers and provide you guys with a list of the ones that are worth a look (for a small fee).

Then, in twenty years, someone can publish an article listing all the Nobel-worthy papers I missed...
 
  • #8
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Nobel Prizes have been around for more than 100 years, if we take the three natural sciences that makes 300 prizes, based on at least 300 publications - often more than one publication per prize, I guess 500 publications are more realistic. Out of those, just a few have been rejected at the first journal (if we can trust the list), typically some high prestige journal. A 1-2% rejection rate at high-quality journals? That is amazing!
 
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