Most of us know of very significant foundational scientific results that were rejected by the major journals and magazines but have nonetheless stood the test of time and proven of exceptional importance to science. The goal of this post (work in progress) is to compile a list of such papers. I have limited the list below only to papers that proved to be exceptionally influential and for which there are reliable and traceable accounts of their rejections. Although the discoveries described by most of these rejected papers have been awarded the Nobel Prize, this has not been a criterion in compiling this list nor will it be as I expand it. Suggestions are most welcomed!
The weak interaction (beta decay), 1933
Fermi, E (1934). An attempt of a theory of beta radiation. Z. phys, 88(161), 10.
Nature Editors: It contained speculations too remote from reality to be of interest to the reader
[Rajasekaran, 2014, page 20], Wikipedia
The Krebs cycle, 1937
Krebs, H, Johnson, WA (1937) The role of citric acid in intermediate metabolism in animal tissues. Enzymologia, 4, 148-156.
Hans Krebs: The paper was returned [from Nature] to me five days later accompanied by a letter of rejection written in the formal style of those days. This was the first time in my career, after having published more than fifty papers, that I had rejection or semi-rejection
[Krebs, 1981, page 98]
A year before Enzymologia published Kreb’s work, Nature published a welcome for Enzymologia that is remarkably relevant to our current concerns!
Maiman TH (1960). Stimulated Optical Radiation in Ruby. Nature 187: 493–494.
Charles H. Townes: He [Theodore Maiman] promptly submitted a short report of the work [report of the first laser] to the journal Physical Review Letters, but the editors turned it down.
The Higgs model, 1966
Higgs, PW (1966). Spontaneous symmetry breakdown without massless bosons. Physical Review, 145(4), 1156.
Peter Higgs: Higgs wrote a second short paper describing what came to be called “the Higgs model” and submitted it to Physics Letters, but it was rejected on the grounds that it did not warrant rapid publication.
FT NMR, 1966
Ernst, RR, Anderson WA (1966) Application of Fourier transform spectroscopy to magnetic resonance. Review of Scientific Instruments, 37, 93-102.
Richard Ernst: The paper that described our achievements [awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize in Chemistry] was rejected twice by the Journal of Chemical Physics to be finally accepted and published in the Review of Scientific Instruments.
Endosymbiotic theory, 1967
Lynn Margulis: In 1966, I wrote a paper on symbiogenesis called “The Origin of Mitosing [Eukaryotic] Cells,” dealing with the origin of all cells except bacteria. (The origin of bacterial cells is the origin of life itself.) The paper was rejected by about fifteen scientific journals, because it was flawed; also, it was too new and nobody could evaluate it. Finally, James F. Danielli, the editor of The Journal of Theoretical Biology, accepted it and encouraged me. At the time, I was an absolute nobody, and, what was unheard of, this paper received eight hundred reprint requests.
[Brockman, 1995], Wikipedia
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), 1973
Lauterbur, PC (1973). Image formation by induced local interactions: examples employing nuclear magnetic resonance. Nature, 242(5394), 190-191.
Paul Lauterbur: You could write the entire history of science in the last 50 years in terms of papers rejected by Science or Nature.
[Wade, 2003], Wikipedia
The Cell Division Cycle, 1974
Hartwell LH, Culotti J, Pringle JR, Reid BJ (1974) Genetic control of the cell division cycle in yeast. Science 183:46–51.
John Pringle: Hartwell et al. (1974) was rejected without review by Nature, leaving a bad taste that has lasted…
Missing data, 1976
Rubin DB (1976) Inference and missing data. Biometrika, 63, 581-592
Molenberghs (2007) wrote: … it is fair to say that the advent of missing data methodology as a genuine field within statistics, with its proper terminology, taxonomy, notation and body of results, was initiated by Rubin’s (1976) landmark paper. DB Rubin wrote …But was this a bear to get published! It was rejected, I think twice, from both sides of JASA; also from JRSS B and I believe JRSS A. … But I did not give up even though all the comments I received were very negative; but to me, these comments were also very confused and very wrong.
Descriptive versus normative economic theory, 1980
Thaler, R. (1980). Toward a positive theory of consumer choice. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 1(1), 39-60.
Richard Thaler: Toward a Positive Theory of Consumer Choice was rejected by six or seven major journals
Shechtman, D., Blech, I., Gratias, D., & Cahn, J. W. (1984). Metallic phase with long-range orientational order and no translational symmetry. Physical Review Letters, 53(20), 1951.
Dan Shechtman: It was rejected on the grounds that it will not interest physicists
Site-directed mutagenesis, 1987
Hutchison, C.A., Phillips S., Edgell M.H., Gillam S., Jahnke P., and Smith, M. Mutagenesis at a specific position in a DNA sequence. Journal of Biological Chemistry 253, no. 18 (1978): 6551-6560.
Michael Smith: When Michael Smith submitted his first article on site-directed mutagenesis for publication in Cell, a leading academic journal, it was rejected; the editors said it was not of general interest.
[Smith, 1993, 2011]
Cluster analysis and display, 1998
Eisen, MB, Spellman, PT, Brown, PO, & Botstein, D (1998). Cluster analysis and display of genome-wide expression patterns. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 95(25), 14863-14868.
David Botstein: The only thing I remember telling her [the science editor] was that it was my thought that this would someday be a citation classic, and in this case I was right
Botstein D. (2009), Personal communication. See also Riding Out Rejection that followed up this post and interviewed David.
Brockman J. (1995), The Third Culture, New York: Touchstone, 144.
Ernst R. (1991) Biographical, http://www.nobelprize.org/
Higgs P. (2013) Biographical, http://www.nobelprize.org/, Brief History
Krebs, H. (1981), Reminiscences and Reflections, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Lin, X., Genest, C., Banks, D. L., Scott, D. W., Molenberghs, G., & Wang, J. L. (2014). Past, present, and future of statistical science. Taylor and Francis.
Mullis, K. (1998), Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, Vintage Books, New York
Pringle, J. R. (2013). An enduring enthusiasm for academic science, but with concerns. Molecular biology of the cell, 24(21), 3281-3284.
Rajasekaran, G. (2014). Fermi and the theory of weak interactions.Resonance, 19(1), 18-44.
Shechtman D. (2011) Nobel Lecture, http://www.nobelprize.org/
Smith, M. (2011) Science.ca
Smith, M. (1993) Biographical, http://www.nobelprize.org/
Thaler, R. H. (2015). Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics. WW Norton & Company.
Townes CH. (2003) A Century of Nature: Twenty-One Discoveries that Changed Science and the World, University of Chicago Press, Link
Wade N. (2003) American and Briton Win Nobel for Using Chemists’ Test for M.R.I.’s, The New York Times, Link