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Can you think of examples of influential scientific articles that at first were rejected by the reviewers but where later recognized as a great and influential contribution?

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As user njuffa has commented, my original answer was not strictly to the letter of the OP.

Here are some other examples :

  • Fermi's 1933 paper on the weak interaction.
  • Gell-Mann's 1953 paper on the classification of elementary particles.
  • Higgs' 1964 paper introducing the Higgs Boson/Field - described as unimaginative by the publisher.
  • Ernst's 1966 paper on nuclear magnetic resonance.

Each of these authors went on to win the Nobel Prize. Details of these cases together with an additional four Nobel Prize winners whose original papers were originally rejected are detailed in this article.


ORIGINAL ANSWER

My father suffered for many years with stomach ulcers. The medical advice he had been given was to avoid stress - not an easy task in most families - and to eat a sensible diet, including drinking a lot of milk and consuming other dairy products and avoiding spicy foods.

In the 1980s, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren proposed that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria. The scientific community rejected, and even ridiculed this idea, arguing that stomach acids would kill any dangerous bacteria. In the end, Marshall convinced the doubters by drinking the contents of a petri-dish full of the dangerous bacteria (H Plyori) in order to obtain the "desired result". Although he expected it to take years for the ulcers to develop, in fact it only took three days. See the research section of the Marshall's wiki article for further details.

In 2005, Marshall and Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine for their discovery.


This page on the Math Overflow site gives a number of cases in mathematics.


EDIT Marshall and Warren first published their theory in The Lancet on June 16, 1984.

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  • $\begingroup$ The asker specifically inquired about publications, it seems. Did Marshall and Warren attempt to publish on their hypothesis in the 1980s, but had their paper(s) rejected? This is not clear from the answer. $\endgroup$ – njuffa Jan 30 '17 at 3:15
  • $\begingroup$ @njuffa Yes, I should have mentioned that they published in The Lancet (The British Medical Journal) on June 16, 1984. I'll edit this into my answer. $\endgroup$ – Nick R Jan 30 '17 at 3:43
  • $\begingroup$ This seems to say they published successfully shortly after they came up with the hypothesis that ulcers are caused by bacteria? The asker seems to be interested in publications that were initially rejected by reviewers. $\endgroup$ – njuffa Jan 30 '17 at 3:50
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    $\begingroup$ @njuffa Oh, I see. Their paper, although published, was certainly rejected by the medical community for well over a decade. I guess this example is not to the letter of the OP, although perhaps in the spirit of the OP. $\endgroup$ – Nick R Jan 30 '17 at 3:53
  • $\begingroup$ @njuffa I have now updated my answer to include examples which match the OP more accurately. Thanks for your comment. My reading skills are not my greatest asset ;-). $\endgroup$ – Nick R Jan 30 '17 at 4:07
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Klaus von Klitzing's original submission on the integer quantum Hall effet was rejected (the story says by Physical Review Letters). He won the Nobel in 1985 for this discovery.

George Uhlenbeck and Samuel Goudsmit proposed an erroneous theory of the electron spin. They sent the manuscript while their thesis director Paul Ehrenfest was absent; Ehrenfest rapidly debunked his student's paper, but it had already been accepted. Ehrenfest later commented that Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit were "young enough" to make such mistakes.

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As mentioned in his obituary, Leigh Van Valen's evolutionary law (1973), referred to more commonly as the Red Queen Hypothesis, has been repeatedly rejected. So much in fact that he decided to create his own journal (Evolutionary Theory) to publish it.

For those not familiar with it, the 'Red Queen Hypothesis' is an evolutionary model driven by competition between species. It is indeed a process frequently invoked to explain coevolution, and is one of the most influential evolutionary theory of the last 50 years.

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    $\begingroup$ What is the status of this theory today? Is it widely accepted or still disputed? $\endgroup$ – Marco Disce Jan 31 '17 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ It is an evolutionary model, so one can occasionally dispute the fact it applies to a particular case, but it is widely accepted as being an accurate model for many cases (sexual reproduction in particular is thought to have evolved and to have been maintained because of this process). $\endgroup$ – plannapus Jan 31 '17 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ To put it differently, the prevalence of this process over other evolutionary processes is still a matter of dispute, but the existence of the process is widely accepted. $\endgroup$ – plannapus Jan 31 '17 at 16:22
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Lous Mordell's paper Indeterminate equations of the 3rd and 4th degrees was rejected by the London Mathematical Society. Mordell wrote later that this paper “marks the greatest advance in the theory of indeterminate equations of the 3rd and 4th degrees since the time of Fermat; and it is all the more remarkable that it can be proved by quite elementary methods… We trust that the author may be pardoned for speaking thus of his results. But the history of this paper has shown him that in his estimation, it has not been properly appreciated by English mathematicians.”

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