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8 Scientific Papers That Were Rejected Before Going on to Win a Nobel Prize

As a scientist, there are few things more soul-crushing than spending months or years working on a paper, only to have it rejected by your journal of choice – especially when you really feel like you’re onto something important.

But it turns out that plenty of world-famous researchers went through rejection before finally having their papers published – including a few papers that later went on to win a Nobel Prize.

That’s not to say the publication system failed these researchers – in fact, the rejection process is part of good, healthy peer-review.

Peer-review involves having a group of independent researchers read every paper submitted to a journal to make sure that the methods and conclusions are solid. They will often suggest revisions to be made, and can reject a paper if they think more work needs to be done, or if it’s not the right fit for the journal.

Following rejection, the end product is usually better than it would have been originally – or it at least, ends up in a more approporiate journal.

Hearing about the renowned pieces of work that faced setbacks before going on to revolutionise the field is a comforting reminder that rejection isn’t necessarily the end of your research – sometimes it’s just the beginning.

1. Enrico Fermi’s seminal paper on weak interaction, 1933

“It contained speculations too remote from reality to be of interest to the reader.” – Frank Close, Small Things and Nothing

Weak interaction, one of the four (or potentially five) fundamental forces of nature, was first described by Enrico Fermi back in 1933, in his paper “An attempt of a theory of beta radiation,” published in German journal Zeitschrift für Physik.

But it was first rejected from Nature for being ‘too removed from reality’.

The paper went on to be the foundation of the work that won Fermi the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics, at the age of 37, for “demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for his related discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons”.

2. Hans Krebs’ paper on the citric acid cycle, AKA the Krebs cycle, 1937
Yes, even scientists who have textbook processes named after them have faced rejection. There wasn’t anything wrong with Krebs’ paper, but Nature had such a backlog of submissions at the time that they simply couldn’t look at it.

“This was the first time in my career, after having published more than 50 papers, that I had rejection or semi-rejection,” Krebs wrote in his memoir.

The paper, “The role of citric acid in intermediate metabolism in animal tissues,” went on to be published in the Dutch journal Enzymologia later that year, and in 1953 Krebs won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for “his discovery of the citric acid cycle”.

3. Murray Gell-Mann’s work on classifying the elementary particles, 1953

“That was not my title, which was: ‘Isotopic Spin and Curious Particles.’ Physical Review rejected ‘Curious Particles’. I tried ‘Strange Particles’, and they rejected that too. They insisted on: ‘New Unstable Particles’. That was the only phrase sufficiently pompous for the editors of the Physical Review….[ ]

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