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Albert Einstein: What did he think of peer review?


The perception of Albert Einstein in the public consciousness is of a man with rare scientific gifts, warm humanitarian views, rigorous ethics and, in later years, unruly white hair and a big moustache.


His ground-breaking theories and scientific discoveries set him apart as a giant amongst geniuses and a man whose intellectual achievements are respected without question. He was the father of modern physics whose ideas would stand up to the most exacting peer review and virtually transcend it. But it wasn’t always this way.


The scientific community is so accustomed to peer review that it can be difficult to remember it wasn’t always the omnipotent, ubiquitous measure of authority we recognise today. During Einstein’s career, the great man actually found it rather tiresome and presumptuous.


The First 300 Years


It’s widely accepted that peer review began in 1665 with the launch of the Philosophical Transactions journal [1] by the Royal Society. However, partly because the scientific community in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was very small, this validation method operated along the lines of an exclusive club rather than a widespread airing of opinions. As a result, peer review as we know it - certainly in the UK - didn’t evolve until the second half of the 20th century.


One of the greatest scientific theories of all time, Darwin’s theory of evolution, explained in his book ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859, was not subjected to any kind of peer review. Almost a century later, in 1953, Watson and Crick’s ‘double helix’ paper [2] was published in ‘Nature’ on the recommendation of Watson, Crick and their colleagues. It, too, was never peer reviewed. In fact, ‘Nature’ did not formally introduce peer review until 1967.


Einstein in Germany


If peer review in the UK was of only limited application in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it had even less of a presence in Germany.


Einstein was born in 1879, and his career as a theoretical physicist began in an environment where the credibility and authority of individuals were not routinely questioned except in the case of ‘crackpot papers’. For example, the policy of the editor in chief of Annalen der Physik, Max Planck, was “to shun much more the reproach of having suppressed strange opinions than that of having been too gentle in evaluating them” [3]. In other words, he would rather risk a mistake than fail to publish important work, hence his journal’s 90-95% acceptance rate.


In 1905, Einstein had quite an extraordinary year: after the rejection of his doctoral thesis, it seemed his scientific career was over before it had begun, but at the age of 26, he submitted his four most famous papers to Annalen der Physik, which published them all.


His dissertations on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity and mass-energy equivalence rewrote some of the laws of physics and changed our perception of light, matter, time and space. The decision to publish was taken either by Planck alone or with his senior editors for theoretical physics without peer review.


Einstein in the USA


Yet it was 25 years later that Einstein had his first brush with peer review, and it was not a happy experience. In 1932, as the growing National Socialist movement spread fear amongst intellectual and Jewish communities, he decided to leave Germany. Einstein had learned that he was a target for assassination – his theory of relativity being branded as ‘Jewish physics’.


Einstein moved permanently to the USA in 1935, where his celebrity status was confirmed, and he took up a position at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. In 1936, he submitted a paper on gravitational waves [4], co-written with his colleague Nathan Rosen, to Physical Review, which was the leading journal of physics in the US at the time.


However, instead of publication being a formality, as it had been for him in Germany, he received ten pages of comments questioning many of the paper’s central claims. The editor, John Tate, asked Einstein to consider the comments and make any changes he felt necessary.


This was not a rejection of his ideas, merely a request to re-examine them. Instead, nonetheless, it drew this lofty response:


“We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorised you to show it to specialists before it is printed. 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.”

Einstein seems to have been affronted by the submission of his work to peer review. He was accustomed to the ‘market of ideas’ in which informal discussions might contribute to his research and help produce authoritative papers that would receive automatic publication. This peer review business was definitely not to his liking.


The Controversial Paper is Published


The story becomes more interesting when we learn that Einstein eventually published the paper in the lower-profile Journal of the Franklin Institute. It’s striking that, by this time, it had undergone substantial revision, apparently after discussions with another Princeton colleague, Howard Percy Robertson. The revised paper toned down many of his original claims and may have saved him from professional embarrassment.


The irony is that the anonymous reviewer who wrote the ten pages of comments was almost certainly the same Howard Robertson on whose advice Einstein eventually acted [5]. In essence, the 1936 paper was subjected to a form of accidental double-blind review, and the outcome of the episode essentially confirms the value of peer review. Einstein was used to airing his ideas in a more open and public fashion. The formal attention of a reviewer made him more resistant to criticism, yet, when the same criticism emerged in the guise of conversation with a colleague - and peer - he found it acceptable.


No review system is ever perfect because it’s impossible to guarantee that any reviewer will be genuinely disinterested or entirely equal to the material. There can also be a lack of objective criteria against which to measure work. These are some of the reasons why several different forms of peer review have been developed. However, broadening the scope even further may be beneficial, although the risk of diluting the process of validation must be guarded against.


And how might Einstein look on the current state of peer review? We have to assume that his instinctive animosity would survive but that he would probably give his cautious approval to the more flexible system of alternatives now offered in the scientific community and its journals.


PA EDitorial’s management services are equipped to handle all forms of peer review, including the specific demands and complexities of the transparent model. We are fully skilled in managing the workflows and communication channels to ensure that, even in this most complex of processes, the interests of authors, reviewers, editors, and the wider academic community are equally and comprehensively served.


Resources:

[1] https://royalsociety.org/journals/publishing-activities/publishing350/history-philosophical-transactions/#:~:text=Philosophical%20Transactions%20is%20the%20world's,acted%20as%20publisher%20and%20editor.

[2] https://www.nature.com/articles/171737a0

[3] https://phys.org/news/2014-06-peer-review.html

[4] https://www.americanscientist.org/article/the-secret-history-of-gravitational-waves

[5] https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsnr.2015.0022

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