Rejected! Pt 1.

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The 2013 Wolf Prize in Agriculture, often referred to as the Nobel Prize in agriculture, was awarded earlier this year to Dr. Joachim Messing.  Messing’s work over the years has spanned many fields but what may be considered his most important work was the development of a seminal technique called shotgun genome sequencing.  Shotgun genome sequencing allows scientists to readily analyze large genomes of different organisms, including humans.

What is largely unknown is that editors and reviewers at various scientific journals originally rejected some of Messing’s most influential pieces of work.  He submitted his groundbreaking work on shotgun DNA sequencing to the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but the paper was rejected because the reviewers felt his work was “too trivial.”  To date that paper has been cited nearly 2,500 times!  His work (behind paywall) describing the creation of pUC plasmids was rejected by an editor at the journal of Nucleic Acids Research.  That paper, despite initially being rejected, has since been cited almost 6,000 times!  Accordingly, his work has been lauded by many scientists over the years including the famed J. Craig Venter, who in 1995 noted (behind paywall)

Messing’s contributions of a set of M13-derived vectors, his pioneering work in the development of shotgun sequencing strategies, and the sequencing of the 8031-bp cauliflower mosaic virus in 1981 are lasting contributions that we continue to build on today.”

Indeed, Venter and hundreds of other scientists directly built upon the work of Messing when they sequenced the nearly 3 billion base pairs of DNA in the human genome using the technique he had originally developed.  The massive project has not only helped change our understanding of the human genome it’s been said to have added an estimated $1,000,000,000,000 dollars to the United States economy.

Messing’s work has also been heralded as being critical in the development of genetically modified crops, including Bt-resistant strains of maize and cotton.  The development of such crops has lead to the reduced application of pesticides in Bt crops and non-Bt crops (behind paywall) as well as higher yields and profits for farmers.

Because of the wide reach of his work Messing is one of the most-highly cited authors living today.  In fact, between 1981 and 1988 he was the most highly cited author in the world.  He’s helped science leap years ahead and never sought patents because his belief that they restrict the exchange of knowledge and scientific progress.

Messing’s work was ultimately accepted after being submitted to different journals but why was it ever rejected in the first place and what seminal ideas are editors delaying today?

Some may argue that delays are inevitable and even necessary as a byproduct of filtering poor work from the scientific literature, however editors often reject work because it’s viewed as not important enough not because it’s incorrect.  Moreover, pre-publication peer review by editors and scientists is, as it stands, not filtering out poor work as is exemplified by the high rates of irreproducibility in science.  In fact, the attempt to appeal to editors may be having unintended consequences.  This profile of a scientist who had fraudulent work accepted in leading journals is telling:

“In his early years of research — when he supposedly collected real experimental data — Stapel wrote papers laying out complicated and messy relationships between multiple variables.  He soon realized that journal editors preferred simplicity.  “They are actually telling you: ‘Leave out this stuff. Make it simpler,’ ” Stapel told me.  Before long, he was striving to write elegant articles.”

Perhaps even more telling is the finding that fraud strongly correlates with the prestige of the journal.

Thus, are editors not only delaying seminal work but also causing poor work?  Share your thoughts with us below.