Rejecting Nobel class papers

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Rejecting Nobel class articles

and resisting Nobel class discoveries.


 

  1. Abstract

  2. Introduction

  3. Resisting Nobel class discoveries

  4. Rejecting Nobel class papers

  5. Discussion

  6. Acknowledgments

  7. References

Juan Miguel Campanario.  
Departamento de Física 
Universidad de Alcalá 
28871 Alcalá de Henares 
Madrid (Spain) 
Fax: 34-91-8854942 

http://www.uah.es/otrosweb/jmc 

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  Nature, 16-Oct-2003, Vol 425, Issue 6959, p.645

 

 

 

 

The research reported in this section has been rejected by 6 journals. 

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Abstract 

 

              I review and discuss instances in which 27 future Nobel Laureates encountered resistance on part of scientific community towards their discoveries and instances in which 36 future Nobel Laureates encountered resistance on part of scientific journal editors or referees to manuscripts that dealt with discoveries that on later date would assure them the Nobel Prize. Although in some occasions the rejection of Nobel class papers could be justified, here I show that the danger that scientific journals disregard or delay important discoveries is real and it can be disastrous.    

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Introduction

 

              The history of science is dotted with stories documenting how many important discoveries were initially resisted or ignored by fellow scientists [Barber, 1961]. Some important discoveries were "premature", in the sense that they did not fit in the common paradigms, and/or their implications could not be connected by a series of simple logical steps to the existing scientific knowledge. These discoveries were often rejected and deemed impractical for quite some time after their initial introduction [Stent, 1972]. In other instances, some theories or discoveries collided with the dominant paradigms in science and they were resisted or scorned at with a generous dose of skepticism.  

            We can distinguish some common patterns of resistance to scientific discovery: papers are rejected, fellow scientists ignore discoveries, articles are not cited, or commentaries are written against the new finding or the new discovery. In other instances, authors of very innovative papers are openly criticized and often face stonewalling from their peers. As Nobel Laureate J. Steinberger had rightfully observed "new ideas are not completely easy to accept, sometimes even by the brightest and most open of people" [Steinberger, 1997]. The worse scenario can also play out: scientific contributions effectively silenced [Sommer, 2001] and prevented from being published for years (please see an example of an article that appeared in 1957 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, 25 years after it was initially submitted [Koelsch, 1957]).  

            Among the more notorious instances of resistance to scientific discovery we can cite the Mayer's difficulties to publish a first version of the first law of thermodynamics [Colman, 1982] or the difficulties experienced by Henry Eyring to publish his classic 1935 paper on the activated complex in chemical reactions [Laidler and King, 1983]. The list would not be complete if we did not mention the problems encountered by Fermi to publish his famous paper on the beta decay [Darrigol, 1988], the Joule's odyssey that eventually led to publishing of his greatest achievement concerning the mechanical equivalent of heat [Smith, 1976] or the resistance sworn against Avogadro's hypothesis [Nissani, 1995]. The reader is welcomed to review other instances as found in [Barber, 1961], [Campanario, 1993a]; [Campanario, 1993b], [Campanario, 1995], [Campanario, 1996], [Campanario, 2002]; [Nissani, 1995], [Shepherd, 1995].  

            Despite the deluge of documented cases, there has been a relative lack of interest on part of sociologists, philosophers and science historians to investigate a topic as important as scientist’s resistance to scientific discovery. Of course, it results embarrassing for the scientific community to acknowledge that many times important discoveries were either neglected, rejected or utterly ignored. As Barber points out, the norm of open-mindedness is one of the strongest scientist's values in science and the episodes of resistance to scientific discovery clashes with this norm [Barber, 1961].

            A new theory or a new discovery does not fully exists until it goes beyond the walls of the cabinet or the laboratory in which it was conceived or demonstrated. New theories and discoveries need to be announced and then evaluated by scientists. We have to conclude that in any scientific discovery there is a social component linked to the communication process. Undeniably, the most common way to communicate a given finding, theory or discovery is through its publication in articles submitted to learned journals. It could happen that editors and referees from journals to which the articles claiming a discovery are originally addressed, engineer fist barriers that impede their diffusion.  

            In previous works I have used a systematic approach to study this special kind of resistance to scientific discovery [Campanario, 1993a], [Campanario, 1995], [Campanario, 1996]. I have relied on commentaries and reminiscences from scientists who wrote highly cited papers. These commentaries were published from 1977 to 1992 in a section of Current Contents. Using this approach I have shown that some of the most cited papers in the History of Science were first rejected by journal referees and editors [Campanario, 1996]. I have also identified a number of important or influential papers and books whose publication was delayed for similar reasons [Campanario, 1993a], [Campanario, 1995]. In some instances, the originally rejected papers eventually became the most cited works from their respective journals.  

            I have also collected other instances of resistance to scientific discovery in which Nobel Prize winners were involved. These instances are taken from autobiographies, personal accounts, Nobel lectures, and so. Now, in addition, I have done a survey among Nobel Laureates in Physics, Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine. Details of the survey are as follows: A first letter was sent to every Nobel Laureate who was awarded Nobel Prize during 1980-2000 period. In this letter I stated the goal of my survey and asked each Laureate whether he or she has ever encountered resistance from journal editors or referees when they submitted their manuscripts dealing with theories or discoveries, which on later date would assure them the Nobel Prize. Some other questions were included but they are less relevant to this research. A follow up letter was sent to the Nobel Laureates that did not respond for over 6 to 12 months after the first letter was mailed, respectively. I obtained 37 answers from Nobel Laureates (11 in Physics, 15 in Chemistry and 11 in Physiology or Medicine). In addition, 2 Nobel Laureates declined to participate in the survey and 13 letters were returned for different reasons.  

            I have classified the instances of resistance in two broad categories:  

a)         Skepticism by part of the scientific community toward a discovery that eventually would be awarded with the Nobel Prize.  

b)         Rejection by journal editors or referees of a paper that reported a discovery or contribution that would eventually be awarded with the Nobel Prize.

 

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Resisting Nobel class discoveries  

 

              Instances of class a)  are self-explanatory. As it can be seen, there are a significant number of instances that cast doubts on simplistic visions and common conceptions of science as an activity in which novelty is welcome, as well as its capacity to assimilate, precisely these novel data, facts, observations and theories.

 

Svante Arrhenius (Chemistry, 1903)  

"(his theory of electrolitic dissolution)...so conflicted with current ideas as to disprove them...Ideas so contrary to those current at that time could not be accepted immediately. A struggle lasting more than ten years and an enormous number of new experiments were required before the new theory was accepted by everyone." [Törnebladh, 1903]

Svante Arrhenius

Chemistry

1903

 

George W. Beadle

Physiology or Medicine

1958

George W. Beadle (Physiology or Medicine, 1958).  

"...In retrospect one wonders how such important findings could be so thoroughly unappreciated and disregarded for so many years. Obviously the time was not ready for their proper appreciation. Even in 1941 when Tatum and I first reported our induced genetic-biochemical lesions in Neurospora few people were ready to accept what seemed to us to be a compelling conclusion...the sceptics were many, the converts few...even at the time of the 1951 Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Quantitative Biology the sceptics were still many..." [Beadle, 1974, p. 11]

 

Baruj Benacerraf (Physiology or Medicine, 1980). 

"Although Kenneth Rock and I provided biological evidence, based in the phenomenon of antigen competition in support of our hypothesis of the specific interaction between processed antigen and MHC molecules, our ideas were initially received with considerable scepticism on the part of MHC geneticists such as Jan Klein." [Benacerraf, 1991, p.15]

Baruj Benacerraf

Physiology or Medicine

1980

 

Günter Blobel

Physiology or Medicine

1999

Günter Blobel (Physiology or Medicine, 1999)  

Interviewer: Well, over the years there's been some scepticism about your work. Do you feel vindicated now?

Dr. Blobel: I do

Interviewer: In what way?

Dr. Blobel: Well, there was a particular aspect of it ... and that was a concept that was not easily accepted [Ifill, 1999]

 

Allan MacLeod Cormack (Physics, 1979)  

"Publication took place in 1963 and 1964. There was virtually no response. The most interesting request for a reprint came from a Swiss Centre for Avalanche Research. The method would work for deposits of snow on mountains if one could get either the detector or the source into the mountain under the snow!" [Cormack, 1979, p. 554]

Allan MacLeod Cormack

Physics

1979

 

Paul J. Crutzen

Chemistry

1959

Paul J. Crutzen (Chemistry, 1995)  

Did you encounter resistance on part of journal editors or referees?

"No, maybe because my original paper was considered to be of fringe interest."

Initial response from scientific community

"Initially very little. Then, when its potential impact on the global ozone layer became a topic, my papers attracted much attention." [Answers to the Nobel survey]

 

Peter C. Doherty (Physiology or Medicine, 1996)  

"...at the stage that this review was written, we found ourselves almost totally unable to generate any support at all for the idea that MHC genes were coding directly for the T cell receptor." [Doherty, 1986, p. 81]  

"...our ideas both contradicted the accepted North American model for the role of immune response genes, and turned the perception of the transplantation system on its head....Evidently some were also infuriated by what we were saying." [Doherty, 1996]

Peter C. Doherty

 Physiology or Medicine

1996  

 

Alexander Fleming

 Physiology or Medicine

 1945

Alexander Fleming (Physiology or Medicine, 1945)  

"In 1929, I published the results which I have briefly given to you and suggested that it would be useful for the treatment of infections with sensitive microbes. I referred again to penicillin in one or two publications up to 1936 but few people paid any attention. It was only when some 10 years later after the introduction of sulphonamide had completely changed the medical mind in regard to chemotherapy of bacterial infections, and after Dubos had shown that a powerful antibacterial agent, gramicidin, was produced by certain bacteria that my co-participators in this Nobel Award, Dr. Chain and Sir Howard Florey, took up the investigation." [Fleming, 1945, p. 163]

 

Denis Gabor (Physics, 1971)  

"For my part, with my collaborator W.P. Goss, I constructed a holographic interference microscope...The response of the optical industry to this was so disappointing that we did not publish a paper on it until 11 years later, in 1966. Around 1955 holography went into a long hibernation." [Gabor, 1971, p. 18]  

Denis Gabor

Physics

1971

 

Sheldon Lee Glashow 

Physics

1979

Sheldon Lee Glashow (Physics, 1979)  

"When we spoke, in 1974, of the unification of all elementary particle forces within a simple gauge group, and of the predicted instability of the proton, we were regarded as mad. How things change!" [Glashow, 1979]

 

C. Heymans (Physiology or Medicine, 1938)  

"The discovery of peripherally located chemoreceptors acting reflexly on respiration was, however, not accepted without much resistance coming from several sources and we also had to undergo what Claude Bernard predicted: 'Quand vous avez trouvé quelque chose de nouveau, on commence par dire que ce n'est pas vrai, puis lorsque la vérité de ce que vous avez avancé devient absolument évidente, on dit que ce n'est pas vous qui l'avez trouvé'." [Heymans, 1963, p. 7]

C. Heymans

Physiology or Medicine

 1938

 

Jerome Karle

 Chemistry

1985

Jerome Karle (Chemistry, 1985)  

"I also deeply appreciate the supportive atmosphere provided by the Naval Research Laboratory. This was especially helpful during the early 1950's when a large number of fellow-scientists did not believe a word we said." [Karle, 1985]  

"The ease of publishing our work in crystallography contrasted greatly with the initial reaction of a subset of the crystallographic community. Within this community there was a very local group given to strongly negative comments at meetings of the American Crystallographic Association and in some scientific publications." [Answers to the Nobel survey]

 

Walter Kohn (Chemistry, 1988)  

Initial response from scientific community:

"Favorable on the part of physicists, negative on the part of most chemists." [Answers to the Nobel survey]

Walter Kohn

Chemistry

1988  

 

Harold W. Kroto

 Chemistry

1996

Harold W. Kroto (Chemistry, 1996)  

Initial response from scientific community:

"With regard to this question, when our paper was first published there were several papers which claimed that the experiments were not correct and that our interpretation was also not correct." [Answers to the Nobel survey]

 

Max Von Laue (Physics, 1914)  

"Walter Friedrich, who had just finished his doctoral thesis on X-Ray scattering under Röntgen, and was now one of Sommerfeld's assistants, offered to test the idea experimentally. The only difficulty was that Sommerfeld did not think much of the idea at first and preferred to have Friedrich do an experiment on the directional distribution of the rays emanating from the anti-cathode." [Von Laue, 1962, p. 294]

Max Von Laue

Physics

1914

 

Rita Levi-Montalcini

Physiology or Medicine

1986

Rita Levi-Montalcini (Physiology or Medicine, 1986)  

"In spite of, or perhaps because of its most unusual and almost extravagant deeds in living organisms and in-vitro systems, NGF did not at first find enthusiastic reception by the scientific community, as also indicated by the reluctance of other investigators to engage in this line of research." [Levi-Montalcini, 1986, p. 357]

 

Ferid Murad (Physiology or Medicine, 1998)  

Initial response from scientific community:

"They were sceptical and disinterested." [Answers to the Nobel survey]

Ferid Murad

Physiology or Medicine

1998

 

Lars Onsager

Chemistry

1968

Lars Onsager (Chemistry, 1968)  

"Onsager presented his fundamental discovery at a Scandinavian scientific meeting in Copenhagen in 1929. It was published in its final form in 1931 in the well known journal Physical Review ... One could have expected that the importance of this work would have been immediately obvious to the scientific community. Instead it turned out that Onsager was far ahead of his time. The reciprocal relations, which were thus published more than a third of a century ago, attracted for long time almost no attention whatsoever. It was first after the second world war that they became more widely known". [Claesson, 1968]

 

Martin L. Perl (Physics, 1995)  

"Our first publication was followed by several years of confusion and uncertainty about the validity of our data and its interpretation..." [Perl, 1995, p. 186]

"It was hard to believe that both a new quark (charm) and a new lepton (tau) would be found in the same narrow range of energies." [Perl, 1995, p. 187]

"It was a difficult time. Rumors kept arriving of definitive evidence against the tau lepton." [Perl, 1995, p. 187]

Martin L. Perl

Physics

1995

 

Stanley B. Prusiner

Physiology or Medicine

1999

Stanley B. Prusiner (Physiology or Medicine, 1999)  

"Publication of this manuscript, in which I introduced the term 'prion', set off a firestorm. Virologists were generally incredulous and some investigators working on scrapie and CJD were irate."

"Since the press was usually unable to understand the scientific arguments and they are usually keen to write about any controversy, the personal attacks of the nay Sayers at times became very vicious." [Prusiner, 1997]

"It should be noted that the scientific community greeted this discovery with great scepticism, however, an unwavering Prusiner continued the arduous task to define nature of this novel infectious agent." [Anonymous, 1997] 

 

Peyton Rous (Physiology or Medicine, 1966)  

"Rous' findings concerning tumour progression were rapidly confirmed in many experimental systems. On the other hand, his virus theory was received with much scepticism. The notion that virus diseases must be infectious and cancer not due to infectious processes was so deeply ingrained that there was a tendency to explain all virus tumours as strange exceptions.... It took almost half a century for Rous' discovery to advance to its dominant place in modern experimental cancer research." [Klein, 1966]

Peyton Rous

Physiology or Medicine

1966

 

Ernst Ruska

Physics

1968

Ernst Ruska (Physics, 1986)  

"Of course, at that time our approach was not taken seriously by most of experts. They rather regarded it as a pipe dream. I myself felt that it would be very hard to overcome the efforts still needed-mainly the problem of specimen heating." [Ruska, 1986, p. 362]

"In spite of these more recent publications, it took us three years to be successful in our quest for financial support through the professional assessment of Helmut Ruska's former clinical teacher, Professor Dr. Richard Siebeck, Director of the I. Medical Clinic of the Berlin Charite." [Ruska, 1986, p. 367]

 

William Shockley (Physics, 1956)  

"The first good junction transistor was presented publicly in 1950 when I described it at an international semiconductor conference. It was a high-power, low-frequency device, and aroused so little interest that it was omitted from the report of the conference." [Shockley, 1972, p. 691]

William Shockley

Physics

1956

 

Hermann Staudinger

Chemistry

1953

Hermann Staudinger (Chemistry, 1953)  

"It is no secret that for a long time many colleagues rejected your views which some of them even regarded as heretic. This was understandable perhaps. In the world of high polymers almost everything was new and untried. Long-standing, established concepts had to be revised or new ones created. The development of the macromolecular science does not present a picture of a peaceful idyll." [Fredga, 1953]

 

Howard M. Temin (Physiology or Medicine, 1975)  

"Since 1963-64, I had been proposing that the replication of RNA tumour viruses involved a DNA intermediate. This hypothesis, known as the DNA provirus hypothesis apparently contradicted the so-called 'central dogma' of molecular biology and met with a generally hostile reception...that the discovery took so many years might indicate the resistance to this hypothesis." [Temin, 1986, p. 159]

Howard M. Temin

Physiology or Medicine

1975

 

C.H. Townes

Physics

1964

C.H. Townes (Physics, 1964)  

"One day...Raby and Kusch, the former and current chairmen of the department, both of them Nobel Laureates for their work with atomic and molecular beans and with a lot of weight behind their opinions, came into my office and sat down. They were worried. Their research depended on support from the same source as did mine. 'Look', they said, 'you should stop the work you are doing. You're wasting money. Just stop'." [Lamb, Schleich, Scully and Townes, 1999, p. S266]

 

F. Zernike (Physics, 1953) 

"With the phase contrast method still in the first somewhat primitive stage, I went in 1932 to the Zeiss Works in Jena to demonstrate it. It was not received with such enthusiasm as I had expected. Worst of all was one of the oldest scientific associates, who said 'If this had any practical value, we would ourselves have invented it long ago.' Long ago, indeed! The great achievements of the firm in practical and theoretical microscopy were all due to their famous leader Ernst Abbe and dated from before 1890, the year in which Abbe became sole proprietor of the Zeiss Works." [Zernike, 1953, p. 242]

F. Zernike

Physics

1953

 

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Rejecting Nobel class papers 

 

              The more interesting instances are those in which a Nobel class paper is rejected outright. In the discussion that follows I have made an attempt to summarize the instances of initially rejected papers reporting seminal discoveries or findings that would eventually earn their authors the Nobel Prize. I have identified these instances from the survey to Nobel Laureates and from other sources. In general, I only have included here instances in which the own Nobel Laureate explains himself about the problem encountered in publishing the discovery. Only in a few cases I have used testimonies by others. In my opinion, these indirect sources are reliable because represent interviews or testimonies written by co-authors of the rejected articles or scholars with great academic prestige or, as it happens in one of these instances, the first journal rejecting the paper apologized by the mistake. Thus, when no citation is given, it simply means that the data concerning the rejected Nobel class paper are taken from the survey conducted to the Nobel Laureates.

            Here are the excerpts of instances in which Nobel class papers were rejected by referees:

 

-The 1948 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Arne Tiselius "for his research on electrophoresis and adsorption analysis, especially for his discoveries concerning the complex nature of the serum proteins". Originally, Tiselius published his findings in the Transactions of the Faraday Society. In this article an improved method of electrophoretic analysis was applied to the study of serum proteins. However, this paper was first rejected in a biochemical publication to which it was sent first. Apparently, the journal's main objection centered on contains of the paper as too "physical" [Tiselius, 1968, p. 7]. Nonetheless, the importance of this article can be deduced from the fact that it is explicitly cited in Tiselius' official biography [Anonymous, 1948]. Despite the initial rejection, and according Tiselius' testimony, "the reaction (to the paper) was immediate and extremely positive"  and "I was flooded with letters and requests for reprints and even a telegraphic order" [Tiselius, 1968, p. 7]  

Arne Tiselius

Chemistry

1948

 

Michael Smith

Chemistry

1993

-Michael Smith received the half of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for his fundamental contributions to the establishment of oligonucleiotide-based, site-directed mutageneis and its development of protein studies". Here, again, a paper reporting the work for which the Nobel Prize was awarded was rejected when first submitted for publication. Eventually, the article ended up on pages of another journal and not surprisingly, its appearance attracted well-deserved scientific attention. Prof. Smith interpreted the rejection as a cause of "a subjective judgment by the editor of a journal to which many more manuscripts are submitted than could be published."  

 

-The manuscript based on highly significant findings concerning antibody response made by Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet was rejected by the British scientific journal to which it was originally submitted. This work stated the ensuing implications of the discovery. Not swayed by negative response, Burnet pursued the topic, collected more data, and published his observations in an unrefereed monograph entitled "The production of antibodies" [Fenner and Cory, 1997]. The discovery reported in the second edition of the monograph was awarded with a share of the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.  

Frank Macfarlane Burnet

Physiology or Medicine

1960

 

Klaus von Klitzing

Physics

1985

-Klaus von Klitzing was awarded the 1985 Nobel Prize in Physics "for the discovery of the quantized Hall effect". However the original report initially submitted to the Physical Review Letters was returned. After revising the article to fit referees' suggestions, this crucial work was finally accepted in the same journal. Figure 1 shows a copy of the rejection letter of this paper.  

 

-The referees of the journal Physical Review Letters had also rejected the key paper concerning the discovery of superfluid Helium (3He) This discovery earned Profs. David Lee, Douglas Osheroff and Robert C. Richardson the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics. The future Laureates had to spend a great deal of time to get the decision overturned. One referee argued that the system "cannot do what the authors are suggesting it does" [Buchanan, 1996]. Eventually, with the help of a senior colleague, the authors managed to convince the editor that they had stumbled on a new and exciting discovery, and, as Lee pointed, "ultimately, reason prevailed and the manuscript finally appeared" [Lee, 1997].   

David Lee

Douglas Osheroff

Robert C. Richardson

Physics

1996

 

John Polanyi

Chemistry

1986

-A seminal report by John Polanyi that described for the first time a large category of lasers based on vibrational energies in molecules was also rejected by the Physical Review Letters. This article was published (identical text) in 1961 by Journal of Chemical Physics. According the press release from Swedish Academy of Sciences that announced the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, "the method which (Polanyi) has developed can be considered as a first step towards the present more sophisticated, but also more complicated, laser-based methods for the study of chemical reaction dynamics" [Anonymous, 1986].  

 

-A manuscript authored by Murray Gell-Mann and dealing with "strangeness" in elementary particle Physics was similarly rejected by referees of the Physical Review in 1953. The editors objected to the use of the main concept Gell-Mann coined ("curious particles"). He had to change to "new unstable particles" after "strange particles" was also rejected. The referees also objected his explanation of differences between neutral boson and neutral anti-boson. It was very difficult for Gell-Mann to convince referees that he was right [Gell-Mann, 1982]. The work reported in this article was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1969.  

Murray Gell-Mann

Physics

1953

 

Pavel A. Cherenkov

Physics

1958

-In the year 1958 Cherenkov, Frank and Tamm shared the Nobel Prize in Physics "for the discovery and interpretation of the Cherenkov effect". However, the Cherenkov's original manuscript entitled "Visible radiation produced by electrons moving in a medium with velocities exceeding that of the light" was turned down by Nature, "whose editors did not take the work seriously" [Hubbell, 1991, p. 10]. Fortunately, the editors of Physical Review rescued the paper, which is one of the first reports in English concerning Cherenkov effect.  

   

-Figure 2 shows a copy of the letter Hans Krebs received from Nature declining in a polite way to publish the first report on the citric acid cycle, the discovery for which Krebs would eventually share the 1953 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The Kreb's commentary that accompanied the letter is quite illuminating: "the paper was returned to me five days later accompanied by a letter of rejection written in the formal style of those days. This was the first time in my career, after having published more than fifty papers, that I had rejection or semi-rejection" [Krebs, 1981, p. 98]. As it can be seen, Nature argued that they had sufficient letters to fill the correspondence columns for seven or eight weeks and offered to keep the letter "until the congestion were relieved". Instead to wait, Krebs forwarded the manuscript to the journal Enzymologia, where it was published within two months. Many years later, an anonymous writer from Nature came forward and recognized this cardinal mistake [Anonymous, 1988].  

Hans Krebs

Physiology or Medicine

1953

 

Hideki Yukawa

Physics

1949

-Again Nature rejected a Nobel class manuscript. In this case, it was a paper by Hideki Yukawa who won the 1949 Nobel Prize in Physics "for his prediction of the existence of mesons on the basis of theoretical work on nuclear forces". As it can be seen in figure 3, the Physical Review also rejected similar manuscript in 1937 [Kawebe, 1988].  

 

-The discovery for which Tomas R. Cech received the half of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was in conflict with some well-established ideas in Biology. In short, Cech discovered that RNA molecules can act as an enzyme. Nonetheless, in his Nobel Lecture, Cech vividly described how contemporary enzymologists feel outraged with the use of words "catalysis" and "enzyme-like" to describe the function of RNA he had recently discovered [Cech 1992, p. 666]. Among them, was a referee from Nature who strongly criticized the author for the use of these concepts in a manuscript by Bass and Cech submitted for publication in such journal.  

Tomas R. Cech

Chemistry

1989

 

Cesar Milstein

Physiology or Medicine

1984

-Cesar Milstein fell prey to similar resistance upon submitting two papers on work, which would eventually bring him worldwide recognition and a share of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1984. The key manuscript, sent to Nature, had to be shortened and appeared as a letter in 1975. However, by 1985 this article had been cited 3040 times [Garfield, 1985]. Still another key paper describing the first human leukocyte differentiation antigen was likewise rejected by the Journal of Experimental Medicine without refereeing. As Milstein noted, this delay may have had patent rights implications.  

   

-One of the two reviewers of Nature who read Robert F. Furchgott's highly original article describing the "endothelium-dependent relaxation" expressed doubt about the validity of the experimental procedures and conclusions [Furchgott, 1993]. The publication of such paper required considerable rebuttal. The paper had also to be shortened. Yet, as in previous instances, the findings reported in this manuscript turned out to be discovery that earned its author a share of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.  

Robert F. Furchgott

Physiology or Medicine

1998

 

Harmut Michel

Chemistry

1988

-Again, Nature rejected a Nobel class article written in this instance by Harmut Michel, who shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The article was eventually published in the Journal of Molecular Biology and, in a scientometric study, it has been identified by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) as a core document in two research fronts concerning the topic for which Michel would eventually share the Nobel Prize [Garfield, 1989c]. With time Michel was vindicated in a letter by an anonymous writer from Nature who wrote only to recognize this paramount mistake [Anonymous, 1988].  

   

-Both, Nature and Science rejected one of the first reports by Kary Mullis concerning the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which turned out to become the most widespread method for analysing DNA [Mullis, 1998, p. 105]. This was the discovery for which Mullis shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Apparently, the editors of Science had not great faith in the revolutionary technique that was about to modernize the DNA analysis with its practical application to everyday life, and believed that the paper could be published in a secondary journal. As a consequence, the article appeared later in Methods in Enzymology.  

Kary Mullis

Chemistry

1993

 

Gerd Binning

Heinrich Rohrer

Physics

1986

-Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer are famous for developing the scanning tunnelling microscope for which they received the 1986 Nobel Physics Prize. In their Nobel Lecture, they have spoken about being often told that they were addressing something that should "not have worked in principle" [Binning and Rohrer, 1986, p. 389]. Actually, their first attempt to publish a letter describing the scanning tunnel microscope failed. Professor Nico García, a visiting scholar from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain), intervened with his paternal remark, "that's a good sign" [Binning and Rohrer, 1986, p. 397].  

 

-The original publication in which Baruch S. Blumberg related Australia antigen to the etiologic agent of "viral" hepatitis did not elicit wide acceptance. Indeed, as Blumberg, said, there had been many previous reports of the identification of the agent causing hepatitis [Blumberg, 1977, p.19]. The referees rejected a more extensive paper by Blumberg and co-workers that spoke about the same topic, on the grounds that the authors were proposing another "candidate virus" and there were already many of these around [Blumberg, 1977, p. 19]. This was the discovery for which Blumberg shared in 1976 the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The editors were reluctant to publish such theory and required additional studies and publication to have this concept accepted [Blumberg, 1986, p. 159].  

Baruch S. Blumberg

Physiology or Medicine

1976

 

Stanley Cohen

Physiology or Medicine

1986

-In 1986 Stanley Cohen shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his works on growth factors. However, one of the first articles on this topic was rejected by the first journal to which it was submitted. There was a referee who insisted that the laboratory mice used in the experiment were nothing but ill. Subsequently, the article was published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology. According to Cohen, the editor of this journal wrote him that if the observations reported in the paper were true, he would be famous some day.  

 

-Twice the Journal of Chemical Physics rejected in 1965 the key paper that led to the 1991 Nobel Prize in Chemistry so rightfully awarded to Richard R. Ernst [Ernst, 1991]. The editors claimed that the contents of originality were insufficient for publication in such journal. In consequence, Ernst had to publish his findings in the less known Review of Scientific Instruments. This article described the use of single, high energy pulses of radio waves containing all frequencies that would make atoms "flip" instead of a gradual sweep with a spectrum of radio waves that was in use previously [Garfield, 1992, p. 5]. Also, Varian, a well-known fabricant of scientific instruments, resisted to build a spectrometer that incorporated the novel Fourier transform concept [Ernst, 1991]. As Ernst would later confirm, even they, the authors, did not foresee that the simple concept they were proposing could revolutionize Nuclear Magnetic Resonance [Ernst, 1986, p. 267].  

Richard R. Erns

Chemistry

1991

 

Severo Ochoa

Physiology or Medicine

1959

-A half of the 1959 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to the Spaniard biochemist Severo Ochoa "for his discovery of the mechanisms in the biological synthesis of ribonucleic acid" (RNA). A key step in his research involved the enzymatic synthesis of polynucleotides. His first report describing the PNPase was published in 1955 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Nonetheless, Ochoa had to defeat very adverse criticism by a referee [Ochoa, 1980]. Fortunately, this monumental contribution was too important to ignore and the discovery was subsequently received with great interest in two meetings in San Francisco and Brussels.  

 

-The other half of the 1959 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Arthur Kornberg. Yet, some of the referees that reviewed in 1957 two manuscripts submitted by Bessman and colleagues and by Lehman and colleagues to the Journal of Biological Chemistry  (being senior author Arthur Kornberg) rejected the manuscripts. In these papers, authors accounted the enzymatic synthesis of DNA. After some interchange of correspondence, Kornberg was about to acknowledge defeat and withdraw the papers, but fortunately for science, a new editor finally accepted the papers [Kornberg, 1989, p. 158].  

Arthur Kornberg

Physiology or Medicine

1959

 

Paul Boyer

Chemistry

1997

-The same Journal of Biological Chemistry also declined to publish the Nobel Prize winning work of Paul Boyer, as he recognized in an interview to his University magazine [Olney, 2000]. The work awarded with the 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was the description of the molecular motor that creates cellular energy and the biochemical pump that transport such energy across membranes in cells. However, scepticism remained even after Boyer first published his theories in 1971 [Smaglik, 1997].  

 

-Leading professional journals refused to publish Louis J. Ignarro's discovery that NO is crucial to the life process, the discovery that was awarded with the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine [Olney, 2000]. This discovery elicited an avalanche of research activities in many different laboratories around the world and Viagra is maybe the most immediate application [Olney, 2000].  

Louis J. Ignarro

Physiology or Medicine

1998

 

Rosalind Yallow

Physiology or Medicine

1977

-Figure 4 shows a copy of the rejection letter received by Berson and Yalow from the Journal of Clinical Investigation where the authors intended to publish a singular paper that later on was recognized as a great achievement in Medicine and earned a share of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Rosalind Yallow. The paper was first rejected by Science and, after the initial rejection by the Journal of Clinical Investigation, it was published in this journal after a compromise with the editor including some changes in content [Yalow, 1978].  

 

-In a highly cited article published in 1952 in Chemical Reviews, Henry Taube, the winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, demonstrated a correlation between ligand substitution rates and electronic configuration for coordination compounds of the transitions metals [Gray and Collman, 1983, p. 986]. By 1983 this was Taube's most cited paper and as such it became a basis of research in the reaction chemistry of coordination compounds [Garfield, 1984]. The original article was submitted for publication in Chemical Reviews, although Taube was not aware that this journal only published invited papers. Nonetheless, the submitted manuscript was reviewed anyway, ... and rejected. Only the intervention of a well-known inorganic chemistry rescued the paper for the journal and avoided such mistake [Taube, 1988].  

Henry Taube

Chemistry

1952

 

William A. Fowler

Physics

1983

-In this occasion, the Review of Modern Physics published an article by William A. Fowler and others which had been rejected by another journal [Maddox, 1983]. This paper is perhaps one of the most important contributions made by Fowler to Physics, truly a milestone, since it provided a coherent explanation of nucleosynthesis. According the press release from the Swedish academy of sciences during which the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics was announced, "this theory is still the basis of our knowledge in this field, and the most recent progress in nuclear Physics and space research has further confirmed its correctness" [Anonymous, 1983]. By 1983 the article had been cited in over 800 publications [Garfield, 1984].  

 

-William N. Lipscomb received the 1976 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his studies on the structure of boranes. In an interview held with E. Thomas Strom, Lipscomb recalled how the Journal of the American Chemical Society rejected the first manuscript in which he used the concept of pseudorotacion to explain the structure of a boron hydride. Another manuscript in which he showed that p-dithiin was V-shaped was also rejected by the Journal of Organic Chemistry [Strom, 1989].  

William N. Lipscomb

Chemistry

1976

 

Herbert C. Brown

Chemistry

1979

-The development of the techniques that permitted the employment of boron-containing compounds as crucial reagents in organic synthesis by Herbert C. Brown was awarded with a share of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to him. Here again, the press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Science praised Brown's contribution as a step that revolutionized Chemistry: "thanks to the work of Brown and his co-workers, the organoboranes have become the most versatile reagents ever created in organic chemistry" [Anonymous, 1979]. Nonetheless one of the referees who reviewed Brown's key paper (entitled "A new technique for the conversion of olefins into organoboranes and related alcohols") stated that "there are nothing new about the reaction..." and "moreover, the reactions produce organoboranes for which there are no known-applications. Consequently rejection is recommended" [Davenport, 1987].  

 

-Analytical Biochemistry rejected a paper by Martin Rodbell (in collaboration with Salomon a and Londos) in which they described a highly sensitive adenylate cyclase assay "due to insufficient advancement" [Salomon, 1986, p. 157]. Notwithstanding, the suggested approach yielded vast amounts of information that was key for the development of the concept of transducers [Rodbell, 1994, p. 222]. This was the work that earned the half of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Martin Rodbell.  

Martin Robdell

Physiology or Medicine

1994

 

Eugene P. Wigner

Physics

1963

-According the Swedish Academy of Sciences, Eugene P. Wigner received a share of the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics "for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles, particularly, through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles". One of his highly cited papers on symmetries dealing on the unitary representations of the inhomogeneous Lorentz group was nevertheless rejected when first submitted for publication. Fortunately, John Von Neumann was so impressed that had it published in the Annals of Mathematics. As Wigner pointedly remarked upon this unjustified rejection "not all articles originally rejected by a journal prove to be valueless" [Wigner, 1986, p. 297]. According Wigner, the content of the paper proved to be useful both in Physics (when applied to elementary particles), and in Mathematics.  

 

-Herbert Kroemer (2000-Physics) was awarded "for developing semiconductor heterostructures used in high-speed and opto-electronics". He suggested the principle of the double heterostructure laser in 1963 and published it in the Proceedings of the IEEE. However, the paper was previously rejected by the journal Applied Physics Letters [Kroemer, 2000]. The vice president of research at Varian persuaded Kroemer not to fight the rejection but to submit the paper to the final journal [Kroemer, 2001].  

Herbert Kroemer

Physics

2000

 

Richard Martin Willstätter

Chemistry

1915

-Richard Martin Willstätter (1915-Chemistry) was awarded the Nobel Prize for his researchers on plant pigments, especially chlorophyll. However, the Berichte of the German Chemical Society rejected his first work on this topic. This manuscript was two pages long, containing many analytical results, and, according Willstätter, the paper was never printed because he "could not accept the editors' stipulation that a section containing the essential conclusions had to be eliminated in order to forestall disagreements" [Willstätter, 1965, p. 184].  

   

-Now imagine a meeting in which a young astronomer is delivering a report in which he states a surprising and counterintuitive result concerning star evolution. Instead of greeting his announcement with enthusiasm, one of the most revered and prestigious astronomers of the moment was heard saying the following words soon after the presentation to the people attending the meeting: "Dr ... has got this result before, but he has rubbed it in, in his last paper, and, when discussing it with him, I felt driven to the conclusion that this was almost a reductio ab absurdum of the relativistic degeneracy formula. Various accidents may intervene to save a star, but I want more protection than that. I think there should be a law of Nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way" [Chandrasekhar, 1969, p. 583]. The young astronomer who received such reception was no other but Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, 1983 Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics in recognition, among other merits, to his work on stellar evolution, the topic that was utterly snubbed at during the meeting. The objection was delivered by the illustrious astronomer Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, and the on line rejection of the Chandrasekhar's paper was consumed during the Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society held in January, 1935.  

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

Physics

1983

 

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Discussion

            The previously described examples should help us to understand better the social dimension of scientific discovery. In their quest for ultimate truth, the scientists often face daunting challenges related not only to the research difficulties but must also to convince peers that their achievements are worth to be published and accepted. The common conception concerning science emphazises the serene analysis of contributions and the unbiased evaluation of any contribution.  

            We tend to conceive science as an incessant search for truth or as a task that consists basically on expanding the domains of knowledge and incorporating new observations and data into new theories. One of the features, which we tend to associate almost intuitively with science, is the zeal for new discovery. The instances discussed above cast doubts on this simple vision. In some instances, we can recognize the phenomenon of delayed recognition [Garfield, 1989a]; [Garfield, 1989b]; [Garfield, 1990]. When this happen, as a general rule, the discovery may be unnoticed at all for years, until the scientific community begins to recognice its value or the scope of its implications which are reflected in the attention that it receives: a clear sign that it has been 'discovered' by the scientific community. Curiously enough, it may happen that the article which shows this phenomenon is usually published in widely read journals, therefore the delayed recognition phenomenon cannot be attributed to lack of access to scientific information. For example, the two papers authored by Allan Cormack and published in 1963 and 1964 were published in the well-known Journal of Applied Physics. A citation analysis revealed that these articles, in which Cormack presented his award-winning work received only 7 citations until 1974. Next, this number increased [Garfield, 1979, table 4].  

            In addition, we have to deal with other instances in which a Nobel class paper was rejected by journal editors and referees. In some occasions the rejection of a given paper by a referee could be justified and explained. For example, the Physical Review Letters rejected the first theory by Nobel Prize winner Robert B. Laughlin for the fractional quantum Hall effect because a referee discovered some mistakes [Laughlin, 1998]. Obviously, this was not a Nobel class paper, although a Nobel Laureate wrote it. Another edifying example, was brought forth by the editor George Basbas, and is related with the refereeing process of the paper by Von Klitzing concerning the quantized Hall effect cited above. According Basbas, this instance "shows more the value of the review process and how it can contribute to turning a research report into prize winning work" [Basbas, 1999]. Prof. Furchgott also admitted that the editor of Nature was right in advising him to shorten his Nobel Prize manuscript [Furchgott, 1993, V3]. Insomuch that, there are some instances where an initial objection against publishing Nobel class papers seem justified. And, in addition, a first rejection could stimulate a more deep work as it seems to have happened in the case of rejection of Burnet's work [Burnet, 1968, p. 72].

            However, most of instances discussed above deal with genuine resistance to scientific discovery and it is illuminating to ascertain some of the reasons why such a resistance exists in the first place.  

            A possible explanation that could motivate peer resistance to scientific discovery lies in the fact that new theories or discoveries often clash with the orthodox viewpoints held by the referees. It seems that scepticism towards new theories and discoveries is not rare in science [Nissani, 1995]. The Nobel Laureate Stanley B. Prusiner confirmed this view when he wrote "while it is quite reasonable for scientists to be sceptical of new ideas that do no fit within the accepted realm of scientific knowledge, the best science often emerges from situations where results carefully obtained do not fit within the accepted paradigms." [Prusiner, 1997].  

            In other instances the problem is that referees did not appreciated the potential or the interest of the new discoveries. This could happen, for example, because some discoveries are not clearly derived from the accepted knowledge or related to the current body of knowledge. The fact that some of the articles reporting new findings or discoveries that were initially rejected would earn their authors much deserved recognition and the most important scientific award, cast doubts on the current publishing policies which govern dissemination of new information. Something is wrong with the peer review system when an expert consider that a manuscript is not of enough interest to be published and later the work reported in such rejected paper earn the Nobel Prize to their authors.  

            The previous instances of resistance demonstrate that, sometimes, the common wisdom concerning the scientific publishing system could be wrong. For example, in his well known article entitled "On the scientific method: its practice and pitfalls", Ayala says that "peer review does not thwart new ideas. Journal editors and the 'scientific establishment' are not hostile to new discoveries. Science thrives on discovery and scientific journals compete to publish new breakthroughs" [Ayala, 1994, 240]. However, critics often argue that peer review system is meant for regulating paradigmatic science (in the Kuhnian sense) rather than for welcoming brand new knowledge. Peer review was shown to be plagued with many imperfections [Campanario, 1997]; [Campanario, 1998a]; [Campanario, 1998b]. For example, Roald Hoffmann, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, has pointedly observed that "in the course of this refereeing process there are incredibly irrational responses unleashed by perfectly good and otherwise rational scientist" [Hoffmann, 1995, p. 83]. Another Nobel Laureate, Prof. Paul D. Boyer, wrote "manuscripts that have to be produced sometimes a bit unwillingly, offer the challenge to present speculation and perspective are often not welcome by editors of prestigious journals" [Boyer, 1997]. Judging from some of the previously discussed examples and other published [Sommer, 2001], the danger of suppressing or disregarding evidence contrary to the established views is real and it can be disastrous.

               

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Acknowledgments  

 

            I wish to express my gratitude to the Editor of Physical Review Letters; Macmillan Magazines Limited; Prof. Laurie, M. Brown and The Nobel Foundation for granting permission to reproduce some rejection letters included in figures 1 to 4. I also acknowledge the staff of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (Australia), and to Professors Tobby Sommer and Michel Crozon, who suggested me some interesting references. Finally, I wish to acknowledge to the Nobel Laureates who answered my survey, and especially, to Professor von Klitzing for providing a copy of a rejection letter.  

 

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