Peer Review? I have no peers!

Professor Brian Keating
4 min readJun 11, 2024

After his “miracle year,” 1905, no day went by without Einstein being heralded as an infallible genius, the G.O.A.T. (Genius of All Time). Headlines heralded his brilliance: “Einstein was right!” Indeed, Einstein was right about many things, including his groundbreaking theory of general relativity, Bose-Einstein condensates, Brownian motion, and E=mc². However, his journey with gravitational waves reveals peer review’s indispensable role in saving his bacon.

Einstein introduced the concept of gravitational waves in 1918, describing them as ripples in spacetime. Despite inventing them, he was skeptical about their reality. In June 1936, alongside physicist Nathan Rosen, Einstein asserted that gravitational waves were not physical and would never be observable. Their unpublished paper, “Do Gravitational Waves Exist?” Their answer: No! He claimed that gravitational waves were mere mathematical artifacts without physical significance.

Einstein and Rosen’s initial conclusion was that gravitational waves had no physical meaning and could always be made to disappear by adjusting our notions of space and time. (This was their third collaborative paper, following their famous 1935 paper on the incompleteness of quantum mechanics and their discovery of wormholes, known as the Einstein-Rosen bridge.)

Expecting their claim to be as provocative as their previous works, they submitted their manuscript to Physical Review. However, a new peer-review process had been introduced. The paper was not rejected but was returned with suggestions for revision from Howard Percy Robertson, a renowned cosmologist. This infuriated Einstein!

Not unlike today, some scholars had a deep mistrust of peer review back then. These days, it’s become somewhat popular to bash science journals. They’re slow, bureaucratic, full of potential bias, and sometimes rife with outright fraud.

Obscure standards and publication delays can be frustrating, and reviewers’ comments are often seen as overly critical or dismissive of innovative ideas. In addition, the high cost of publication limits access for researchers without substantial funding. The replication crisis, in which many studies cannot be reproduced, further undermines trust in academic publishing and peer review.

Worst of all, predatory journals exploit the academic system by charging fees without providing rigorous peer review, leading to the spread of low-quality research.

Back in Einstein’s time, peer review was rarely implemented — sometimes, Albert could literally get the back of an envelope published. Rather than revise the paper, Einstein submitted it to the Journal of the Franklin Institute. Before publishing it, Einstein softened and discussed the criticisms with Robertson, realized his mistakes, and corrected the manuscript. The final published work in 1937, “On Gravitational Waves,” was correct.

This episode illustrates the critical importance of peer review in the scientific process. Peer review serves as a quality control mechanism, ensuring that experts rigorously evaluate research before publication. It helps identify errors, suggests improvements, and validates the research’s credibility. For Einstein, the peer-review process revealed significant flaws in his initial conclusions about gravitational waves, allowing him to correct them before publication, underscoring that even the most brilliant scientists can benefit from the scrutiny and feedback provided by peer review.

Science is a collaborative endeavor where ideas are continuously tested, challenged, and refined. Peer review prevents the dissemination of incorrect information and fosters the advancement of knowledge by encouraging constructive criticism and dialogue within the scientific community. It discourages nonsense claims like those I’ve highlighted in the zeitgeist by conspiracy theorists like Bart Sibrel and far-out actors like Terrance Howard from pumping pollution into the informational town square.

To me, paraphrasing Churchill, peer review is the worst process…except for all the others. It is crucial for maintaining the integrity and accuracy of scientific research. It ensures that findings are robust, reliable, and worthy of the trust placed in them by the scientific community and the public.

Oh, and gravitational waves? They were detected in 2015, leading to Nobel Prizes for my friends Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish. Too bad for Einstein: had he not mistakenly claimed gravitational waves were undetectable, he might’ve become famous 📷!

Until next time, have a M.A.G.I.C. week!

Brian

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Professor Brian Keating

Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor at UC San Diego. Host of The INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE Podcast Authored: Losing the Nobel Prize & Think like a Nobel Prize Winner