Publishing & Peer Review in the Age of Einstein

If scholars like Darwin, Einstein, or Watson and Crick had been subjected to the scrutiny of contemporary journals, the scientific truths of our era might look considerably different. Their contributions to science set a timeline of discovery in motion. Present-day academic papers are only published in journals if they pass the scrutiny of peer-review, which is often done in anonymity by a handful of volunteers.

In 1905, Annalen der Physik, the journal in which Einstein published his famous Annus Mirabilis papers on special relativity, did not subject his documents to a review process. The journal had a high acceptance rate and published around 90-95% of all papers submitted. Einstein's special relativity theory presented a direct challenge to existing hypotheses on ether, prompting the scientific community to ridicule his work, labeling it impractical and absurd.

Einstein worked to accelerate the acceptance of his research through collaborative partnerships and public presentations. He introduced new frameworks in the field of physics and proposed new concepts of space and time by incorporating gravity into his views of the universe. Thus was born the theory of general relativity. It wasn't until 1925 when observations made by scholars in the fields of astronomy offered peer-endorsement of Einstein's research.

Einstein published his work freely until 1936, when he came face-to-face with the peer-review process. He and his assistant, Nathan Rosen, sent a paper on gravitational waves to Physical Review, a periodical which established its reputation in the United States as a premier physics journal. Einstein's research paper had the potential to be highly controversial as it challenged existing beliefs.

The editor of the journal, John Tate, hesitated on publishing Einstein's paper unless he significantly toned down his claims. Tate subjected the research paper to a blind peer review and returned over ten pages of comments that cast doubt on many of Einstein's central claims.

Einstein sent this message to John Tate:

"We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorized 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 made critical revisions to his paper before a second attempt at publishing with, Journal of the Franklin Institute, a periodical in which Einstein had already published. Despite refutations from peer review, Einstein refused to let others decide what he could publish. Einstein may have been willing to accept error, but, his actions demonstrate a preference for a public intellectual arena, not rebuttals in a backroom at the behest of an anonymous technician.

Journals initially ignored Einstein's theory that gravitation was a wave, and in this paper Einstein and Rosen nearly made the mistake of inferring the opposite by constructing a single coordinate system. It is through trial and error that scientists and researchers have come to understand these singularities, and filled the gaps in approaches to mathematical formalism. It is universally accepted that Einstein's work contributed to the foundation of modern physics and fundamentally changed scientific views on space and time, but a question remains on how far Einstein’s work would have gotten if he were susceptible to modern peer review across the timeline of his career.

The primary purpose of peer review is to produce high-quality work that is valid and unbiased. As science advances, it is useful in weeding out poorly substantiated findings. Peer review was supposed to be no more than a solicitation of opinion, but the rigorous trials published papers go through today goes way beyond that. Publishing has inadvertently become a closed gate for all but a few, leaving researchers with limited options in raising awareness for their work.

Despite an increase in the number of journals available to publish in, the acceptance rate of submissions has decreased. A paper published by biochemist Ronald D. Vale detailed an estimated fourfold increase in the amount of data required by significant journals from 1980 to the present day. He suggests it is due to increased competition to publish, and also because journals favor mature research stories. They insist on having authors fall in line with escalating expectations, demanding edits, and additional experiments that sometimes take years to complete.

Peer review is not a part of the Scientific Method. Several of the most influential texts in modern science did not go through the peer review process, for example, James Watson and Francis Crick's 1953 paper on the structure of DNA. They published their article in Nature, a premier journal that up until 1973, published without peer review. Watson and Crick's research paper was speculative for its time, and would not pass modern journal publication standards.

Not all 'bad' research is terrible. What we know about Ether in space has changed, but the work still has a foundational role in the advancement of Physics. Excluding imperfect work may inadvertently hold back scientific progress. If an experiment is not repeatable, or if parts of the research are incorrect, it is common practice to discredit the whole of the paper from the pool of scientific knowledge. Rejecting research results sequesters valuable data from the scientific community. This both impedes the rate at which new ideas can be tested and delays the development of future discoveries.

A journal is a business, a periodical moving across the ebb and flow of hype and popular opinion. Journals provide critical services for scientific communities, but they lack the bandwidth to scale their efforts, leaving minimal space available in published volumes. Publishing processes are unnecessarily slow and labor-intensive. Nature publishes only 8% of the 200 papers submitted each week, unable to keep up with supply and demand. Journals decline the remaining academic papers without consideration or peer review. The majority of scholarly work never reaches the external scientific communities it is meant to help.

The technology industry's reactionary solution to academic publishing challenges was to enhance distribution to broader audiences through digital means. Attempts to increase the availability of scientific papers have fallen short because instead of democratizing publishing with technology, companies have created an unfair advantage over authors, funders, and institutions.

Useful technologies realistically address the objectives of their target markets, but in the academic publishing industry, companies have put unnecessary limitations on the fields they aim to help. These limitations impact the advancement of science: suppress scholarly work behind paywalls, platforms are transferring the copyrights of academic work to themselves, and journals subject themselves to systematic bias.

In terms of accessibility, more than 70% of academic research papers sit behind a paywall in the hands of a select few. Technology companies command massive profit margins on digital publishing and generate billions of dollars in annual revenue. Digitization of scholarly work is a booming business, but it essentially duplicates existing issues in print publishing and peer review. Processes and journeys did not change, and where print publishing falls short, so too does digital.

The cost of admission for access to academic work may be high, but the price of not fixing it is higher. Until we can move beyond open access and work to create a new infrastructure for scholarly publications and communications, science has not yet won the fight to free itself from its confines. How scientists shape the scientific truths of the next era depends largely on how they resolve the challenges with academic publishing and how they adapt to the changing landscape.

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