Richard Smith: The editor thinks your paper is nonsense but will publish anyway

Richard Smith“If you want to get on in life, dear boy, don’t be too original. Originality is a curse. People won’t understand you. They’ll feel threatened. You may end up burnt at the stake.” I tried to find a quote from a sage making these points, but I couldn’t—so I made one up myself.

I’m meditating on the curse of originality because of a tale that has come my way from a penfriend in Russia, physicist Anatassia Makarieva. She and her colleagues from Uganda, Brazil, Indonesia, and Australia have conceived an original theory and written a paper entitled,  “Where do winds come from?” (a wonderful, poetic title).

Their paper has been in review for a 1000 days, and many of the reviewers are unconvinced of its validity. The paper is terrifying to look at and has 42 mathematical equations and some very complex figures. The paper has now been “published” in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, the journal of the European Geosciences Union and one of the leading journals in its area of study. I note on 21 January that the journal has already published 793 pages in 2013.

The paper has been published despite “considerable criticism” and despite “negative reviews” but with the following statement from the editor:

Editor Comment. The authors have presented an entirely new view of what may be driving dynamics in the atmosphere. This new theory has been subject to considerable criticism which any reader can see in the public review and interactive discussion of the manuscript in ACPD. Normally, the negative reviewer comments would not lead to final acceptance and publication of a manuscript in ACP. After extensive deliberation however, the editor concluded that the revised manuscript still should be published—despite the strong criticism from the esteemed reviewers—to promote continuation of the scientific dialogue on the controversial theory. This is not an endorsement or confirmation of the theory, but rather a call for further development of the arguments presented in the paper that shall lead to conclusive disproof or validation by the scientific community. In addition to the above manuscript-specific comment from the handling editor, the following lines from the ACP executive committee shall provide a general explanation for the exceptional approach taken in this case and the precedent set for potentially similar future cases: (1) The paper is highly controversial, proposing an entirely new view that seems to be in contradiction to common textbook knowledge. (2) The majority of reviewers and experts in the field seem to disagree, whereas some colleagues provide support, and the handling editor (and the executive committee) are not convinced that the new view presented in the controversial paper is wrong. (3) The handling editor (and the executive committee) concluded to allow final publication of the manuscript in ACP, in order to facilitate further development of the presented arguments, which may lead to disproof or validation by the scientific community.

My friend asked my opinion whether they should agree to their paper being published with this comment. My immediate reaction was yes—for three reasons. Firstly, the alternative was either no publication or another long drawn out process before publication. Secondly, I thought it brave of the editor to go ahead and publish. He or she is following the best traditions of science. Let’s not censor or suppress ideas but debate them. Thirdly, I thought that the note might boost readership of the article.

There’s nothing like a suggestion of suppression for drawing attention to a publication. I remember Colin Douglas being delighted when somebody suggested in the BMJ that his book ought to be banned. “The book the BMJ tried to ban” appeared at once on the cover of the book. ( I must confess, in the spirit of truth and accuracy, that I’m remembering this from long ago and may have got it wrong. But you get the point.)

Interestingly my friend’s paper has already been published in the legal sense and in the sense that anybody could have read it from October 2010. Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry is a journal that has two parts—a discussion part where papers are posted, reviewed, and discussed, and then a second, definitive part that works like a conventional journal.

My friend’s paper was submitted to the discussion part of the journal on 5 August 2010, accepted on 20 August, and published on 15 October. The gap between acceptance and publication seems unnecessarily and unaccountably long. Between October 2010 and April 2011 the paper received 19 comments, two of which were from reviewers, nine comments from the authors (two in response to reviewers), and eight other comments. All the comments have names attached, and everybody can see these comments.

The first comment comes from Peter Belobrov, who describes the paper as a “novel scientific paradigm” and “fantastic.” The two reviewers are clearly perplexed by the paper, and in one, Isaac Held writes:  “A claim of this sort naturally has to pass a high bar to be publishable, given the accumulated evidence, implicit as well as explicit, that argues against it. I am afraid that this paper does not approach the level required. I have done my best to keep an open mind, but do not see any cogent arguments that overturn the conventional wisdom. I do applaud the authors for questioning the foundations of our understanding of the atmosphere ….”

All of this seems admirable and in keeping with the spirit of science—and far better than the closed, unaccountable traditions of most medical journals—with anonymous reviewers whose words are never seen by readers. But after its strong start Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry seems to revert to the traditional mode, and in my friend’s case the review process took more than 18 months. We, the readers, don’t know who reviewed the paper or what they wrote, but the editor’s comment makes it clear that peer review was a difficult process.

I wonder why the journal can’t remain open for all of its processes.

I’ve grown increasingly sceptical of peer review, and it’s with the truly original, the paradigm shifting research where peer review has its biggest problems. Peer review is a common denominator process. New ideas are judged by people in the “old paradigm,” and, as the philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, told us those stuck in the old paradigm cannot envisage the new paradigm. We can see this dramatically in the arts: Beethoven’s last string quartets were thought to be noise; Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime; and Charlie Parker was condemned as a “dirty bebopper.”

The same problem arises in science, and David Horrobin, a strong critic of peer review, collected many examples of peer reviewers turning down hugely important work, including Hans Krebs’s description of the citric acid cycle, which won him the Nobel prize, Solomon Berson’s discovery of radioimmunoassay, which also led to a Nobel prize, and Bruce Glick’s identification of B lymphocytes.

The deeply original and the crazy can be hard to distinguish, and the fact that lots of paradigm shifting papers are rejected by peer review doesn’t mean that my friend’s paper is a work of genius. It might be nonsense. I don’t know. I’m pleased, however, that the work is there for us all to scrutinise. I can’t see that harm is done by having the paper available, but nor can I see that it was necessary to publish the editorial comment or to take a 1000 days to review it.

The paper will either fade with time, the fate of most papers, or be recognised eventually as something original and important.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.