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Scientific Papers That Were Rejected Before Going on to Win a Nobel Prize (2016) (sciencealert.com)
127 points by ZeljkoS 58 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments

Going through the reasons for these rejections, most seem perfectly reasonable, and few are complete rejections.

One was rejected simply because that journal had too large a backlog to handle new submissions. One journal didn't like the authors title and published it after the author agreed to change the title. There are a couple of cases where a journal said the topic wasn't really relevant to their journal, and the work then went on to get published in more relevant journal. In one case they said we like your work and think you're on to something, but your conclusion is too strongly worded given the data you presented.

In no case did the journal or reviewer state that they thought the paper or research was straight up wrong.

Very true. I think many that are not in the scientific community do not understand that almost all papers in top journals are given "revise and resubmit" status, so people can fix small to large issues before being reviewed again. This process makes the paper more understandable, not just to the reviewers, but to the community at large. It is not a perfect process, but definitely one that has improved writings as a whole.

I’ve never heard of a paper that was accepted without revisions after peer review. There’s always some (thoigh frequently many) requested changes, but never once have I seen three reviewers all sign off without having a single suggestion.

It seems almost inherent to the process. I don't read or write journal articles. But I'm sometimes asked to be a reviewer on a book proposal and I fairly frequently review docs of various types at work.

If I'm just one peripheral person on a long list I might read quickly through and say "Looks fine to me." But if I'm really reviewing something, I almost feel that I'm expected to at least find some nit-picks--as well as anything really substantial of course. It's pretty rare that I will be "No comments" on a first-pass review.

The insulin-antigen one did claim it was not proven true. Is that close enough to 'wrong'?

I can't really judge, but by the sounds of it the paper didn't provide enough evidence to prove that it was true, or at least didn't make it obvious that it was true. They even admit that the data presented was "suggestive" that it might be true.

This is something you see all the time. Someone does a limited experiment, gets the result they where hoping for, and then get super excited and carried away and claim that their entire thesis has been proven true. I've rejected (or rather sent back for extensive revision) papers myself based on this, even when my gut feeling was that their conclusion was probably correct. Often the paper comes back with a more moderated conclusion and then gets published without a problem.

One they missed was Barry Marshall and Robin Warren's research on a bacterial cause of peptic ulcers [0]. Their paper was rejected from the Gastroenterological Society of Australia, who "rated it in the bottom 10% of those they received in 1983." They both became Nobel laureates in 2005.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barry_Marshall

Do physicists really consider the editor saying "change the title" a rejection? If the only request I got from an editor was "change the title" I would be popping the champagne.

From what I gather there are essentially four outcomes to the review: accepted, accepted after minor modifications, rejected pending resubmission after substantial modifications, fully rejected.

Minor modifications shouldn't require a new full review cycle, maybe just the editor takes a look, or just some quick check with reviewer to see if they accept the change.

Rejecting pending resubmission is for larger changes which require a more thorough review, but the journal is still interested in publishing the paper. This might be a section that requires more explanation, for example more details on how samples were controlled for other factors.

Also as mentioned a full rejection doesn't automatically mean the paper is rubbish, it could just be the journal doesn't consider it a good fit or similar. It's not uncommon for a paper to go through multiple rejections before getting published.

At least that's my understanding based on a close friend who publishes papers, feel free to correct me.

You've pretty much got it, but a paper receiving either of the "accept" outcomes in the first round is extremely rare. I know of zero. Your third, "rejected pending resubmission after modifications" is the normal path for papers that go on to be accepted. Often this is called a "revise and resubmit" or R&R.

"Nobel Prize-winning physicist offered opportunity to re-word awkward title" doesn't get clicks though.

no, "change the title" is not a rejection. The entire article we're discussing is based on a silly narrative that somehow the literature is supposed to act as a binary classification filter for nobel prize winning work.

I think instead, its highlighting the fact that such literature reviewers are remarkably incapable of distinguishing groundbreaking work from nonsense. This would be an important measure of an editor, I would think. That they don't reject what the journal is supposed to be seeking.

reviewers don't exist to detect groundbreaking work (we live in an area where every scientist touts their paper as groundbreaking... beacuse they wouldn't get published otherwise).

reviewers exist to find the dumb, obvious errors in papers that should prevent publication so as to not waste too much of other's people's time.

A neat synopsis of why the system is broken. Thanks!

Science doesn't end after publication. Discussion and citation lead to further analysis of a work, allowing people to identify and understand truly groundbreaking ideas.

Peer review is only broken if you expect it to be something it isnt.

no I think that's a sign it's working it's not like anyone in the field has an ability to predict what's truly groundbreaking groundbreaking is something that you realize 5 years later in the context of many other things that have gone on. for example I doubt that the first reviewers of the crisper papers really appreciated the deep power of the technique.

But "fix the title and we'll print it" is not a meaningful rejection. Groundbreaking research doesn't mean that your article can't be improved in any way.

As a materials scientist I have to vote for quasicrystals. On top of not receiving the Nobel prize, Dan Shechtman had to observe and decrypt the meaning of diffraction patterns that were so strange people thought his machine was malfunctioning.

Humans have no known way of producing quasicrystals in bulk, but amazingly we have found that meteorites (e.g. the Khatyrka) can have them. Something about traveling through deep space for millions of years...

Quasicrystals can be modeled as crystals in the N+1’th dimension.

Princeton mathematicians recently simulated a 1D crystal where the location of the atoms on the 1D grid was set to the first few tens of millions of prime numbers. The resulting diffraction pattern was quasi-crystalline...

Sorry for the off-topic note, but I would appreciate if you could comment on my recent poll here (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21187659) and, if you know other MSE people on HN, please ping them, if possible. Thank you very much in advance!

Good article but it seems to be copied near-verbatim from [1]. There is a tiny “H/T” at the bottom of the article.

Suggest that the link point to the original source.

[1] https://www.authorea.com/users/8850/articles/117724-nope-8-r...

This reminds me of something I recently saw on Netflix. In the documentary about physicist Abdus Salam, he sent Wolfgang Pauli a paper on parity violations. Pauli replied saying something like "find something better to do".

Later, two Chinese physicist went on to get the Nobel Prize for that same theory. Pauli later apologised.



I remember hearing that the original graphene paper was initially declined by Nature because the reviewers claimed that isolating a 2D material was impossible. I feel that's a more firm rejection than many of those listed here.

As framed above the story is little more than make-you-feel-good if you get rejection. The data makes sense only in the following contexts:

  - How many accepted papers did win the Nobel Prize?
  - How many rejected papers did not win the Nobel prize?
  - How many rejected papers are utter batshit nonsense?
Other way to say it, what is the likelihood that a rejected paper is Nobel prize-worthy? ...

I read it as being about the incompetence of reviewers. Considering the dreck that does get published, rejecting Nobel-level work should be an enduring disgrace.

Edit: had forgotten about submission fees. Yes, those were real. $100 was a lot more then, particularly for a grad student. Competion from open-access journals has been so good that people are forgetting how terrible it was. But paywall journals are still very, very bad. IMO it is irresponsible to use one.

Or, how many Nobel Prize papers required no revisions after the first submission.

> You might not have heard much about NMR spectroscopy, but it's responsible for revealing details about the structure and dynamics of molecules - something that's incredibly handy for chemists and biochemists.

Also it's the technology driving magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Leaving out 'nuclear' was just a marketing tactic to keep people from being afraid.

Yes, this comment floored me. Did they really not know that MRI used NMR?

I got to do an NMR experiment as an undergrad, a decade before MRI, and it seemed miraculous then. I remember reading a speculation that a 3D imaging machine ought to be possible (in IEEE Spectrum, back when it was often ground-breaking), and was astounded when five years later they had done it and were selling them. Still haven't had a scan, yet.

For those who are interested in a similar article for economics, I can recommend this one from the Journal of Economic Perspectives, which is freely available online:

https://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/jep.8.1.165 (PDF)

To be honest, if I was a reviewer, and somebody sent the first NMR paper to me, I'd reject it. It was a truly crazy idea that came out of war tech. Even when I did NMR in the 90s, it was still pretty crazy: you have a supercooled superconducting magnet and put a sample into a spinning buffer of air, then bombard it with radiowaves and listen for the echo. The echo, if carefully deconvolved, provides unbelievably fine details on the electrically shielded nuclear environment.

Did I mention it was a 23T superconducting supercooled magnet, where you inject charge (electrons) and they swirl around without neglible resistance for months at a time?

Confused. Isn't that exactly like so many other papers involving Big Physics? Large equipment, complex math, remarkable clarity, new/surprising results?

Don't know what about 'needing a big magnet' precludes this being a valid physics paper.

23T is a big magnet. Were you at the high field lab in Tallahassee?

Ah, no, I was just quoting the field strength of what used to be the largest magnet. Personally I used a 600MHz. It's still weird to have your head below a massive magnet and have to tune analog electronics for impedence matching because there aren't any shielding techs for digital electronics that can survive the field strength.

If a scientific paper that may result in winning a Nobel prize never gets rejected, the criteria for acceptance is too lenient.

If a scientific paper that contains rubbish never gets accepted, the criteria for acceptance is too strict.

How about, just shoddy? Don't need to assume perfect reviewers, just confused/ignorant/bad ones.

Bear in mind that a lot of papers are initially rejected by journals simply because the journals want another $99 submission fee.

Wow is that a thing? I have submitted to many journals and none wanted fees before acceptance.

There is whole cottage industry of journals that will publish basically anything in exchange for a submission fee, being kept alive by desperate PhD students who need a couple of more papers published so they can just get their degree and get out of there.

When it happened to me it was a "reputable" high-impact neuroscience journal, not Cross-stitch Monthly.

Was it for open access? Lots of journals charge a fee if you want to make your paper generally available.

Yes, but they charge after acceptance, not before.

username checks out ;-)

This is certainly what used to happen - my experience was from 2007 so they might not be getting away with it any more.

Cerebral Cortex is the only (legit) neuro journal I know of that charges a submission fee. Are there others?

I have never heard of submission fees.

There is plenty wrong with the "scientific publication" process as it is firmly rooted in the 19th-century mentality, but submission fees are not among the problems.

Ooh, wait until you have to struggle to pony up $5K for color figures in a major journal! Note: $5K is a lot for a researcher.

Not having heard of them doesn't mean they don't exist.

That's the problem when hiring reviewers straight from Wikipedia or Stackoverflow. The horizon is very low then.

Are sensationalistic science sites allowed?

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