Time to reform peer-review

One of the critical features in scientific research is the application of the so-called peer-review process before a scientific paper is officially published in a journal. Ideally, peer-review, at least seemingly in its original purpose, should serve as a measure of quality control that benefits both the authors and the readers. However, nowadays, it becomes more and more like an obstruction to the advancement of science, in particular, in terms of radically new ideas and directions.

Obviously I’ve been feeling all the pains through peer-review in my effort of trying to publish my works on mirror matter theory. Stubborn journal editors and referees including some biased ones keep rejecting the new ideas in my papers. But I am not the only one enduring such rejections and there have actually been too many other people including many highly esteemed ones in the same boat during the not-so-long history of scientific research.

A lot of important papers on critical new ideas were first rejected by famous journals. For example, Enrico Fermi’s famous work on beta decay theory that won him the Nobel prize was first submitted to Nature, but the editor rejected it because “It contained speculations too remote from reality to be of interest to the reader”. Fermi had to publish his work in Italian and German journals in 1933-1934. The English translation of his work was published more than 30 years later.

Satyendra Nath Bose first sent his manuscript on later-called Bose-Einstein statistics to the English journal but got rejected. Then he sent it to Einstein and got it published in a German journal. It seems that only the best minds can really understand a truly novel idea.

Peter Higgs, got his famous Higgs model paper (that finally won him the Nobel prize in 2013) rejected first by Phys. Lett. He resubmitted it to Phys. Rev. Lett. (seemingly not as highly regarded at that time). Luckily, this time Nambu, the real expert on the mechanism of spontaneous symmetry breaking, was the referee and his paper got accepted. Again only true masters like Nambu can appreciate such new ideas.

Leonard Susskind, one of the founders of string theory, once said that his first string theory paper got rejected as well. There have been many more cases that the ground-breaking papers were published in much less known journals, or in modern times, many were posted as preprints at arXiv.org and never officially published in any journal. But even more open preprint services like arXiv.org are starting to apply some sort of peer-review rules or over-moderation to block papers with radically new ideas.

One dramatic example outside physics is that Van Valen’s red queen paper on a new evolutionary law was repeatedly rejected so that he started his own journal (Evolutionary Theory) to publish it. In the justification of the journal, it says “Originality of work is elsewhere inversely related to its acceptability“.

More cases can be found in an article published by Juan Miguel Campanario in journal “Scientometrics” that detailed how some Nobel class discoveries were rejected or resisted by journal editors and referees.

A very interesting article published in a psychological journal: “What If Social Scientists Had Reviewed Great Scientific Works of the Past?” is definitely worth reading. It simulated review reports for some truly great scientific works in the history of humankind showing the pitfalls in a peer-review process. Most of the comments are suitable not only for psychology but also for many branches of natural science including physics.

It’s become clear that peer-review definitely needs improvement maybe even be radically reformed. It could be replaced by establishing an arXiv-based overlay journal system with a well-thought review/credit mechanism.

More links for some further interesting reads:

see this link: Hate the peer-review process? Einstein did too

on journal diversity: In Praise of ‘B’ Journals as elite journals promote trendy and mainstream research, but not truly innovative studies.

on bias against novelty: How scientific culture discourages new ideas

on improving peer review: A multi-disciplinary perspective on emergent and future innovations in peer review

Author: Wanpeng Tan

I share my ideas and thoughts mainly about mirror matter theory and open science on this blog. Under the new theory, we live in the universe with a mirror (hidden) sector of particles. A perfectly imperfect (minimally broken) mirror symmetry is the key to unlock the beauty and elegance of our universe. Click on the menu links for a popular introduction, a technical summary, and list of my papers on the new mirror matter theory.