Peer reviewers rejected Fisher’s paper that defined variance

The rejection of R.A. Fisher’s groundbreaking paper defining variance seems to be one of the bigger mistakes of peer review:

Fisher completed his paper on Mendelism and biometry by June 1916 and submitted the paper to the Royal Society of London for publication. The referees suggested it be withdrawn. He subsequently submitted the paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which with his financial assistance published it on 1 October 1918 under the title “The Correlation between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance.”

The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, William Provine (1971), p. 144

This paper has 2439 citations according to Google (which sounds extremely low), as well as its own Wikipedia page. I’d call that a success.

In addition to its importance in statistics, the paper was a key landmark in the synthesis of genetics, evolution, and biometry.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

18 thoughts on “Peer reviewers rejected Fisher’s paper that defined variance”

  1. I’ve no doubt Will Provine’s account is of interest — but the summary on Wikipedia states the following: “The two referees, the biologist R. C. Punnett and the statistician Karl Pearson, believed that the paper contained areas they were unable to judge, due to lack of expertise, and expressed some reservations. Though the paper was not rejected, Fisher carried a feud with Pearson from 1917 on, and instead sent the paper via J. Arthur Thomson to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which published it in its Transactions.

    1. Provine explains the personal rift that emerged between Pearson and Fisher, largely due to Pearson’s very strong dismissal of Mendelian genetics.

      Provine also makes it clear that if anyone could understand Fisher’s math, it was Pearson, but Pearson had a habit of dismissing Fisher’s work without reading it carefully. The influence of personal antagonisms on the development pop gen is a big theme of Provine’s book.

    2. The inexpert reviewer is pretty frustrating too. Fisher was known for carrying feuds.

      Also worth noting that having to pay to get your paper published is a tradition the publishing industry keeps alive and well to this very day.

        1. I haven’t read Provine’s account in a long time but it seems to me that 1) Fisher’s paper wasn’t actually rejected, and 2) It is hardly “one of the bigger mistakes of peer review” as, given the context, the time, the place, etc., critical comment was justifed. And, of course, science doesn’t progress by critical comment alone. Otherwise, well, who knows…

          1. It was suggested that Fisher “withdraw” it, which is the equivalent of rejection in the Royal Society journal in that time.

            I disagree completely that context suggests the rejection was appropriate because 1) It was clear to everyone that there were big tensions between biometry and Mendelian genetics that needed to be resolved and 2) the point of peer review, even back then, was not to exclude papers that reviewers might disagree with, but rather to exercise quality control. A provocative paper without obvious methodological or reasoning flaws, which tackles a clearly important problem, is a paper that should be accepted.

            And in fact Provine notes that Fisher’s paper was very well received by the geneticists who had the math chops to read it.

            1. I didn’t say ‘appropriate’, I said justified. Your further statements are of an ideal (“A provocative paper without obvious methodological or reasoning flaws…etc.”) rarely ever met rather than what actually happens, then or now. As I said, “science doesn’t progress by critical comment alone.”

              1. I don’t get your distinction between appropriate and justified. And if Fisher’s important paper is a case where peer-review failed to live up the ideal, that’s a failure of peer-review.

  2. Earlier in the book, Provine states one of his big themes in the book – personal antagonisms between biometricians and Mendelians played a role in the development of population genetics:

    The widely publicized conflict between the Mendelians and the biometricians, which arose soon after the rediscovery of Mendel’s work in 1900, influenced the development of population genetics. The conflict caused a split between those who advocated Mendel’s theory of heredity and those who advocated Darwin’s theory of natural selection. If the Mendelians had worked with, instead of against, the biometricians, the synthesis of Mendlian inheritance and Darwinian selection into a mathematical model, later accomplished by population genetics, might have occurred some fifteen years earlier. Provine, p.25

  3. Come on, Provine should have known better: “If [such and such] ….[then] [the synthesis] might have occurred some fifteen years earlier.” ‘If-Then’ arguments have only retrospective value. And by value, well, I wonder what that might be.

    1. Read the book – it’s not idle speculation; Provine points to specific papers on specific dates that came extremely close to the ideas accepted later. But documented personal antagonisms kept Pearson, Bateson, Weldon, and others from accepting the evidence right under their noses.

      1. First, I have read the book (funny assumption to make that I haven’t). Second, you are missing my main point: “right under their noses”. Like plate tectonics etc. Things are only “right under our noses” when we know what’s under our noses (sorry, terrible sentence but hope you get the meaning). That’s why science is such fun. Finding out what we already know. And then saying that’s what we knew.

        1. That the reconciliation between Mendelian genetics and evolution was delayed due to personal antagonism between scientists is a big thesis in Provine’s book, not a throw-away line. Provine “should have known better” than to make that a big part of his book?

          Maybe to scientists these kinds of retrospective arguments aren’t important, but the role of communities and social interactions in science is a big question in the history of science.

  4. You really are missing my point – but I humbly suggest that you should review your line of thought first: “The rejection of R.A. Fisher’s groundbreaking paper defining variance seems to be one of the bigger mistakes of peer review”. No mention of “the role of communities and social interactions in science” appeared at all at that stage – I think I played on that point instead. Yes, it is mentioned by yourselves eventually but I stated: “science doesn’t progress by critical comment alone”. That would seem sufficient. For us both. And I suggested that Provine’s ‘If-Then’ argument was faulty not his central thesis, of which we both seem to agree on! Anyway, this is not productive. My point again: By implication your initial story seemed (please note: seemed) to suggest that (and I caricature for effect) along comes the brilliant Fisher with a fantastic ground breaking idea only to be upended by poor, dim uninformed reviewers – damn that review system. But truth and justice, in the form of Fisher’s persistence and his mighty works, prevail. OK, I’d rather read what happened: along comes Fisher with an idea; he gets called and challenged by those who can do so; arguments ensue; both sides attempt to explain their points further; (some stuff gets personal, life in all its pain and suffering); more discussion, more argument, more people involved, more ideas, more grist for more mills, eventual (possibly) resolution. And then more discussion, and so on. Not surprisingly it is this latter story you revert to you in this discussion. So my problem was with your initial stance. Science really is fun (and does arouse passions). And fun for all.

    1. I don’t see how you get the concept of communities and social interactions from the fairly mundane observation that “science doesn’t progress by critical comment alone”.

      I made a brief blog post about a pathbreaking paper that was ironically (and wrongly) rejected during peer review. I suppose I did miss your point – I thought you were citing a brief Wikipedia article to say the that the reviewers’ opposition to Fisher’s paper was justified.

  5. Not quite sure the ‘ironically’ is relevant and ‘wrongly’ implies that knowledge we have now was understood then, which is really not the case (Provine’s ‘speculations’ to one side). You guys referenced the Wikipedia article and provided the link. I would never have thought of looking there. But I was struck by its more sober account than your own. But again, you use ‘pathbreaking’ but that applies only in the sense we now know what we know. This is my point. You appear to interpret history from the vantage point of now. This implicitly assumes there is a right and a wrong, which, given time, will get sorted out, as if we are on the path to ‘truth’. For me, that contradicts the spirit of science, actually it contradicts the spirit of human enquiry, messy, periodic most often wrong. As an aside, Fisher is not as perfect as one might assume from some commentary.

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