Applied Optics Editor-in-Chief, Joseph N. Mait, comments on the value of peer review in improving the work published by authors.

© 2013 Optical Society of America

A colleague at work recently forwarded to me a 2005 article from IEEE Computer [Computer 38(12), 127–128 (2005) [CrossRef]  ] that contained excerpts from the rejection letters that several (now famous) researchers received for the initial reports of their groundbreaking work. The rejections include Alan Turing’s “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” (“a bizarre paper…I strongly suspect the machine is too simple to be of any use”) and Claude Shannon’s “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” (“poorly motivated and excessively abstract”).

The point of the article is definitely amusement. How could the scientific establishment be so shortsighted? We finish reading these comments, comforted in knowing that we are smarter than that and don’t make such mistakes. Anecdotes of folly are certainly amusing, but do these anecdotes highlight a fundamental flaw in peer review? Do these anonymous reviewers deserve our derision?

My response to the article was that peer review is not perfect. Reviewers must approach each article with healthy amounts of both curiosity and skepticism. Since peer review is a human creation, it is fraught with imperfections; but is this newsworthy, and does the article suggest that we should do away with peer review? I asked my colleague how long he thought the article would be if it listed all the manuscripts rejected by reviewers that were truly not worthy of publication. No doubt longer than the six contained in the article. Despite authors’ opinions to the contrary, not every submitted manuscript is necessarily transformative.

Consider the impact of review on the Higgs boson. Frank Close writes, in The Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly Universe, that, after Physics Letters rejected Peter Higgs’ initial manuscript, Higgs modified the manuscript to “add some practical consequences of the theory…the paper’s initial rejection led Higgs to add the feature that helped set him apart from the pack.” Higgs theorized the existence of the particle that would eventually carry his name.

I contend that researchers should not view rejection as negation but as challenge. How did Turing and Shannon respond to their reviews? Did the review help them improve the presentation of their ideas? Did they, like Higgs, make revisions? If so, how did the revisions affect the development of the work? From physics, we know that terrestrial objects cannot move forward without friction. I believe the same is true of ideas.

Review at all levels is necessary for ideas to evolve. I counsel young researchers at my laboratory not to be afraid of reviews or to avoid questions and conflict that are technical in nature. They are necessary to improve one’s work and should be embraced.

Our amusement in the IEEE article derives from hindsight. The work was eventually published and each paper has had a significant impact on technology. However, we should not overlook the fact that these researchers were so committed to their ideas that they allowed others to interrogate them. The authors may have considered the reviewers simple and short sighted, but they were not deterred by negative reviews.

In recognition of the efforts by reviewers for all of OSA’s journals, in 2012 OSA inaugurated Outstanding Reviewer Awards to 20 volunteers who have consistently provided exceptional review service. As OSA considers reviewer performance once again in 2013, for their time and commitment to peer review, I wish to thank Applied Optics’ reviewers and editors. Their acumen hones the ideas of others.

Joseph N. Mait

Editor-in-Chief, Applied Optics

May 2013

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