Peer review…back in the day.

Once upon a time, giants walked the Earth…or at least scientists version 2.0. Two of these were Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and his contemporary Robert Hooke (1635-1703). Want some gripping reading? Pick up any of the excellent biographies of these two men, and take a closer look at their lives. Newton certainly towers over the history of science. Chances are you know a good bit about him already! By contrast, Hooke is lesser-known, so perhaps a few particulars might be of interest. Hooke’s scientific and engineering contributions ran the gamut from inventing the anchor escapement for watches (the gizmo that helped spring-wound watches keep consistent time whether they were tightly or loosely wound), to the formulation of Hooke’s law, to studies of gravity, astronomy, microscopy, and much more. But Hooke was more than a scientist. He also was in the business of disaster recovery. One of his great accomplishments? Working with the architect Christopher Wren (later responsible for the architecture of William & Mary University on this side of the pond) to rebuild London after the great fire of 1666. [This fire consumed perhaps 13,000 structures, homes to perhaps as many as 70,000 of London’s 80,000 population in those days.] Both men earned a reputation for creativity and integrity for their work in the city’s reconstruction.

Hooke and Newton shared a mutual antagonism for most of their lives. Each accused the other of stealing his ideas – primarily with respect to gravity, but also in the arena of optics. Jealousy? Spite? Self-pity? News flash for those of us living on the real world in the 21st century…we didn’t invent these spiritual faults. Part of the reason Hooke is so obscure today? He made the bad decision to die years earlier, giving Newton two untrammeled decades to damage his reputation with little possibility for retaliation.

But there was another reason Hooke is a lesser-known figure today. As was said of him, “he originated much, but perfected little.” And this wasn’t because he had attention-deficit disorder.

Instead, Hooke was born poor, and had to work for a living. For most of his life he was employed by the Royal Society of London. His job? He held the title of Curator of Experiments. For this he was paid 30 British pounds per year (the average British earnings per person might have been something like 10 British pounds per year during this period). And how did Hooke earn this sum? He was supposed to perform experiments. Some of these were apparently of his own devising. But others were proposed by others. Hooke was supposed to perform two such experiments per week.

In fact, in those days, before the Royal Society accepted a paper for publication, they would repeat the authors’ experiment. So, for example, if Newton said, “take two prisms,…” Hooke would retire to the basement of the Royal Society to verify the resulting spread of the spectrum of the sun’s white light.

Now that’s peer review!

The good news? Hooke was stimulated by a wide range of researches on myriad topics. This clearly fed into his own creativity, just as it does today. The bad news? There are signs that in chasing this and other remunerative activities, Hooke found himself spread too thin. Again, most of us today can relate.

Newton, by contrast, was independently wealthy. [The story goes that the apple fell on his head during one of his frequent trips to the country, this time to avoid the plague.] He could afford to focus on the important, not the urgent.  This is a major takeaway message for you and me.

But back to the peer review. Suppose the American Meteorological Society were to adopt this stance in the present era. Years ago, you wrote a paper based on GARP/FGGE[1] data?  You’d have to await the repeat of that work, and successful reproduction of your results, before you could publish. Wouldn’t be quite so hard to keep up with the literature under these rules, would it? But the pace of progress would most likely have slowed by quite a bit. Or – more likely, authors would be submitting their papers to other journals. And again, given the major role played personalities even three centuries ago, hard to say that peer review was more exacting back then.

More on peer review in the next post.

[1] The Global Atmospheric Research Program/First GARP Global Experiment.

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One Response to Peer review…back in the day.

  1. Zajko says:

    True enough. The tighter the gatekeeping, the higher the standards, the slower the pace (which can stall entirely when replication is lacking for whatever reasons). And how do you get a vast number of people interested in replication when they have their own work waiting and limited time?
    It’s just too bad that today, even quick & dirty peer-review can take so long.

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