Newton, Einstein, Watson And Crick, Were Not Peer Reviewed

Posted on Tue 05/27/2014 by


JoNovaBy JoNova ~

Peer review by anonymous unpaid reviewers is not a part of the Scientific Method.


Image: Sir Isaac Newton Wikimedia

Once upon a time the fate of a scientific paper was dependent on an Editor whose reputation depended on making sound decisions about what to publish. Modern science shifted responsibility from a single identifiable editor to an anonymous “committee”. What could possibly go wrong?

From Zocalo Public Square

Melinda Baldwin looked at the history of peer review:

I was incredibly surprised to learn that Nature published some papers without peer review up until 1973. In fact, many of the most influential texts in the history of science were never put through the peer review process, including Isaac Newton’s 1687 Principia Mathematica, Albert Einstein’s 1905 paper on relativity, and James Watson and Francis Crick’s 1953 Nature paper on the structure of DNA.

A revolution in science happened without formal “peer review”. Who would have thought?

Crucially, journals without refereeing processes were not seen as inferior or less “scientific” than those that used referees. Few scientists thought that two anonymous readers would better judge a paper than, say, the great physicist Max Planck (who was on the editorial board of the prominent German journal Annalen der Physik). Scientists unaccustomed to refereeing did not see it as an obviously superior system.

In 1936, Albert Einstein—who was used to people like Planck making decisions about his papers without outside opinions—was incensed when the American journal Physical Review sent his submission to another physicist for evaluation. In a terse note to the editor, Einstein wrote:

“I see no reason to address the—in any case erroneous—comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.”

Watson and Crick’s paper might never have been published:

Nature’s former editor John Maddox was fond of saying that the groundbreaking 1953 DNA paper would never have made it past modern peer review because it was too speculative.

The full article has more information on the history of peer review:

Most existing historical accounts claim that peer review began at the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, founded in 1665. And indeed, Henry Oldenburg, the Royal Society secretary who managed the Transactions, did sometimes solicit opinions on papers that he was considering for publication. It would be far too simplistic to say that peer review emerged fully formed from the 17th century, however. Oldenburg consulting his friends about the occasional Transactions paper is a far cry from our current system, which generally involves anonymity and reports from multiple referees.

The first formalized refereeing procedures emerged at scientific societies in the 18th century. In 1731, the Royal Society of Edinburgh began to distribute submissions “according to the subject matter to those members who are most versed in these matters.” By the 19th century, the Royal Society of London consulted referees on nearly all papers submitted to the Transactions. These referees prepared reports on the papers, but authors generally would not see them—the reports were meant to help the editors decide which submissions to print, not to suggest revisions.

Many widely read specialist journals in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, had no systematic refereeing procedures at all. Commercial scientific journals (such as the Philosophical Magazine and Nature) were often run by dynamic editors who felt qualified to evaluate any contribution.

The term “peer review” only originated after World War II.  Baldwin doesn’t seem to understand why it has become dominant, and suggests it is partly because of the explosion in “Cold War financial investments in science” and the increase in number of papers being published, which, in the case of Physical Review, “rose from 2,310 in 1940 to 24,544 in 1969″. But the problem of the increase in submissions could be solved by increasing the number of journals and editors.

Obviously the term “Peer Review” is used by those in influential positions in the science world to guard their turf. It makes it harder for up and coming competitors, and is a bar to entry for risky, innovative or politically incorrect work.  It certainly doesn’t seem to stop self-evidently stupid papers from being published.

Given that many areas of science are now so dominantly government funded, by stacking the deck with supporters it’s no surprise that peer review has become the tool du jour to suppress inconvenient dissent in politicized areas of science. It doesn’t take a conspiracy — it’s just a systematic bias.

The answer lies, as always, with competition and individual responsibility. We need private science funding to compete with government funding. We need editors to be named, and their reputation should depend on their judgement. Palming the decision off to “the committee” was never going to work.

Ideally we need to return to funding of science  by patrons who stand to individually gain or lose reputation (or more) by the decisions they make, to have skin the  game, to intimately understand the area of research — even if, to make the best of the current big-government world, they are only doling out public money. Accountability, I say! Who is accountable for ARC debacles? See:  Are ARC grants for science or a form of government advertising disguised as research? See also: Lewandowsky gets $1.7m of taxpayer funds to denigrate people who disagree with him.

JoNova runs the hugely popular award winning Skeptical Science blog JoNova in Australia, with a World wide readership. She is the author of The Skeptics Handbook, now translated into 16 languages.

Read more of her articles at JoNova