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Great Papers That Have Been Rejected

A discussion in the lab brought up this topic: there have been, so everyone hears, famous papers in the sciences that were rejected by the first journals that they were submitted to. I believe, for example, that Dan Schectman faced a lot of opposition to getting his first quasicrystal work published (and he certainly got a lot, notably from Linus Pauling, after it came out). To pick one, the original Krebs cycle paper was turned down by Nature, which a later editor called the journal’s biggest single mistake. Here are some famous examples from computer science and related mathematics (update: in a parody/spoof paper!) and here’s a discussion from an economist on this topic in his own field – I believe that the original Black-Scholes option pricing model paper was turned down as well.
If anyone has more examples to add from chemistry, I’d be glad to highlight them. I have some more thoughts on the subject that I’ll expand into another post later on. . .

36 comments on “Great Papers That Have Been Rejected”

  1. Actually the Krebs cycle may not be Nature’s biggest single mistake. That dubious honor may belong to the journal’s rejection of Fermi’s paper on the theory of beta decay; the paper was apparently rejected with the comment that it “contained abstract speculations too remote from physical reality”.
    If you Google “famous papers that were rejected by journals”, the fourth link is a word document noting Nobel-class papers including several chemistry-related articles which were rejected; among them are submissions by Henry Eyring, Arne Tiselius and Michael Smith.
    As top journals become more and more conservative, expect more such rejections in the future. The original papers by Cocconi and Morrison and by Dyson on communicating with extraterrestrials were published by Science and Nature in the 50s and 60s. Try getting them published in the same sources today.

  2. NJBiologist says:

    “To pick one, the original Krebs cycle paper was turned down by Nature, which a later editor called the journal’s biggest single mistake.”
    But not the journal’s only mistake… Nature’s editorship would go on to tell Kohler and Milstein that their paper describing hybridoma formation, the paper at the foundation of monoclonal antibody production, had to be a brief communication because it just wasn’t important enough to merit publication as an Article.

  3. Carl Lumma says:

    The Santini article is fictional.

  4. Useless Molecule says:

    Apparently this one was rejected in JACS but made it to Science. Isn’t funny?
    DOI:10.1126/science.1146939

  5. MHN says:

    My paper got rejected from JACS: JACS’s biggest mistake ever!! 😀

  6. Anonymous says:

    All great ideas go through 4 key phases: First they are just ignored, then ridiculed, violently rejected and opposed, and finally, accepted as obvious!

  7. NMH says:

    Lehman and Kornberg (A) to JBC about DNA poly 1 was first rejected, and then later accepted with editorial intervention (I wonder if Erwin Chargaff reviewed and rejected it?).
    Also, one of first two papers on Western Blots was rejected. I dont think it was for suspected fabrication either.

  8. mass_speccer says:

    I also like great work published in what are now considered “junk” journals. e.g. the Suzuki coupling – first published in Tet. Lett. 1979, 20, 3437-3440.
    I’ve also heard of people getting papers accepted in ACIEE after not being able to fit into the page limit for Org Lett or ChemComm.
    Journals are a funny world….

  9. Chris Croy says:

    Kary Mullis’ work on PCR was split into two papers. The first paper was rejected by Nature and Science, the second was accepted by Science and had the information from the first paper added after initial acceptance.
    Ironically, Nature accepted an earlier paper of Mullis entitled Cosmological Significance of Time Reversal. He later admitted the paper was mostly insights found through the use of psychedelic compounds.

  10. Result! says:

    Anyone beat 7 reviewers across 2 journals before getting accepted (a vigorous 3-3 draw with one reviewer stuck on the half way line)?

  11. Adam B says:

    In experimental psychology, John Garcia’s seminal experiments demonstrating conditioned taste aversion in rodents was rejected by nearly every journal. One reviewer famously dismissed the veracity of data as being “about as likely as finding bird shit in a cuckoo clock.” While conditioned taste aversions are well established today (i.e., aversions to food eaten after ill-effects chemo therapy), they were seen as improbable in the late 1950’s b/c they violated the standard “rules” of behavioral conditioning.

  12. Anonymous says:

    This is a favorite topic of Juan Miguel Campanario (in Spain). His web page: www2 . uah . es / jmc /
    Some titles: “Rejecting highly cited papers: The views of scientists who encounter resistance to their discoveries from other scientists.” “Have referees rejected some of the most-cited articles of all times?”
    Some other science historians have written on the topic, as well (with examples).
    I want to know about rejected papers that were NEVER published elsewhere, hence, could not become “famous papers in the sciences that were [once] rejected”. For example, if referees asked for “one more example” or some such but there was “no more funding” to provide it.
    I think that there are a lot of amazing unpublished discoveries just waiting to be RE-discovered or otherwise disclosed.

  13. Anonymous says:

    @12: Back in 1989 I tried to submit a theoretical paper predicting that expansion of the universe should be accelerating in order to allow equivalence between parallel universes, but it was rejected by all 3 journals I sent it to. I also sent it to Stephen Hawking, but he rejected the idea on the basis that this would make the universe “open” (infinite), which he couldn’t accept. Alas, my work never got published, and I moved into a different field, but I’m sure my letters will be rediscovered by someone at some point.

  14. milkshake says:

    my own silly paper describing an improved Chloranil test for detection of secondary amines – its the one with acetaldehyde in DMF, that everyone doing solid phase is using now – got bounced from several journals because referees thought it was unoriginal and useless. (It eventually got published in a really crappy journal – Peptide Research – with few typos in it)

  15. Vincorine says:

    Jay Groves’ seminal paper on the radical rebound mechanism of iron oxo species ended up in Tet. Lett. after being rejected by JACS (or so I recall).

  16. Anonymous says:

    If these papers are seminal / original / ground-breaking / innovative then surely we should expect journals will reject some of them.
    Papers are important and much-cited because they break new ground. Because what is now accepted wisdom is so different to what everyone knew back then. Because the advance didn’t seem important but turned out to be awesome. The reviewers rejected them for the same reason that they now seem so important.
    I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

  17. WGC says:

    Wallace Cleland’s paper on enzyme kinetics in the 1960’s was published in BBA after being rejected by JBC (I think).

  18. BigAl says:

    The Lancet rejected an early sildenafil paper as it did not have enough general interest…..

  19. em says:

    The Viedma paper on attrition enhanced deracemization. There were already papers published commenting the Viedma paper, before it was even published.

  20. Dr Jimbo says:

    I reassure myself with this one about Marshall’s work on H.pylori when an abstract gets rejected:
    February 1983: Gastroenterological Society of Australia rejects Marshall’s abstract to present his research at their yearly conference. They deem it in the bottom 10% of papers submitted.
    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_peptic_ulcer_disease_and_Helicobacter_pylori#1970.E2.80.9321st_century)

  21. mark says:

    @16: I’d say it is a bad thing, given that people get jobs/grant money based on having high-impact publications. So then if you’re more likely to be rejected by top journals for doing something important but a bit ‘out there’ (and I do agree with your reasoning on why this happens), the incentive is not to innovate, but to churn out ‘safe’ JACS comms on whatever is currently in fashion.

  22. anon says:

    So the authors get no blame for being unpersuasive in their article for the reasons the paper is important?
    in important mark of a scientist is the ability to convince others of the importance of their work, if it actually is important.
    or my favorite from xkcd
    http://xkcd.com/1028/
    “Anyone who says that they are great at communicating but ‘people are bad at listening” is confused about how communication works”

  23. Mobio says:

    I understand the original optogenetics paper (ature Neuroscience 8, 1263 – 1268 (2005)) was rejected by both Nature and Science.

  24. nekekami says:

    As a software engineer/programmer, I have to point out that the Dijkstra paper was in itself quite harmful, because he blamed a tool for developers being idiots. Dijkstra in fact taught many practices which are wasteful, insecure and in practice sloppy, while they are elegant in the academic sense.

  25. Anon says:

    I believe the first reported Sharpless epoxidation was rejected by JACS.
    Yeah, no ones ever going to use that…

  26. N says:

    The original hydroboration paper was rejected by JACS and subsequently went to JOC. So began HC Brown’s long obsession with screwing over JACS at every turn.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Looking at Nature editor’s note to Kreb, it doesn’t seem that it is outright rejection. Editor just said that it might have to wait for few weeks. Editor’s only mistake seems to be that they could not understand significance of discovery and did not rush it.

  28. Andy says:

    Judah Folkman’s work on angiogenesis inhibitors was rejected several places before finally finding a home after the journal editor overruled the paper’s reviewers (at least that’s how Folkman told the story).

  29. yeroneem says:

    I have very recently heard a talk by Dan Shechtman (a plenary lecture at ECM28), and he described the history of his discovery in great detail. Actually, his short communication has been published in Phys. Rev. Lett. in two weeks after submission (and this was before online ASAP articles). However, his big paper on the same topic, which he wrote earlier, took half a year to publish in an obscure metallurgical journal and saw light later than the PRL one despite being submitted earlier.
    On the other hand, this short communication took two years to write since Shechtman needed collaborators with mathematical background which were able to explain his observations. During these years his group leader asked him to officially detach himself from the group, for example…

  30. Hap says:

    22/23: The problem is that you can lead someone to ideas but you can’t make them think, just as in a conversation, you can talk and listen but you can’t make someone else listen to what you say. There may be no magic words that will make someone accept facts and ideas that they don’t like, and so blaming the authors for readers’ unwillingness to accept their work seems unfair.

  31. Cedar says:

    True story: I submitted a 3 paragraph and 1 scheme total synthesis to ACIE with NO HYPE in an attempt to have the shortest paper in history(or close to it). One reviewer recommended it for the cover and the second rejected it! It was rejected and later accepted into JACS as a full paper….. While I don’t agree totally with the first author I think it make a great story.

  32. saddsadsadsasdasdadsad says:

    The compound that has ten nitrogen atoms in a row was rejected from JACS because “10 is not significantly larger than 8”

  33. Jack says:

    The peer review system is sometimes dangerous. For example, the Editor naturally looks a reviewer from appropriate filed. However, if the reviewer sees a competitive result challenging his own contribution, he can find thousands excuses to show the “weakness” of the submitted manuscript. After rejection, the reviewer will have an opportunity to publish new results based on ideas that does not belong him. The famous mathematician Grisha Perelman refused one million dollars prestigious Fields Prize in order to express his protest to “classic” anonymity review system. This “classic” anonymity review system must be changed!

  34. Jack says:

    The peer review system is sometimes dangerous. For example, the Editor naturally looks a reviewer from appropriate filed. However, if the reviewer sees a competitive result challenging his own contribution, he can find thousands excuses to show the “weakness” of the submitted manuscript. After rejection, the reviewer will have an opportunity to publish new results based on ideas that does not belong him. The famous mathematician Grisha Perelman refused one million dollars prestigious Fields Prize in order to express his protest to “classic” anonymity review system. This “classic” anonymity review system must be changed!

  35. Jack says:

    The peer review system is sometimes dangerous. For example, the Editor naturally looks a reviewer from appropriate filed. However, if the reviewer sees a competitive result challenging his own contribution, he can find thousands excuses to show the “weakness” of the submitted manuscript. After rejection, the reviewer will have an opportunity to publish new results based on ideas that does not belong him. The famous mathematician Grisha Perelman refused one million dollars prestigious Fields Prize in order to express his protest to “classic” anonymity review system. This “classic” anonymity review system must be changed!

  36. HOMO-LUMO says:

    Double open refereeing is the only way.
    You should be able expose, defend and take responsibility for your refereeing in front of the scientific community. Furthermore, getting credit for being a fair and competent referee may compensate the task done and encourage academics to referee more often.
    Otherwise, we will continue having often the kind of trolling, spurious and political overefereeing that would continue serving dubious purposes crippling scientific creativity and innovation.
    And I am not gonna give names.

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