Gravitational waves make a ripple before peer review

Earlier this week, the discovery of gravitational waves by scientists working with the BICEP2 collaboration at the south pole made a huge impact in the media.

The discovery – the first ever glimpse of gravitational waves, ripples in spacetime predicted by Einstein, allows us to look back  in time further than it was thought possible. It teaches us something fundamentally new about what happened a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the big bang, and it could mean the beginning of a whole new era of astrophysics.

But the scientific community, along with the press, celebrated this discovery before it was submitted to an academic journal.

Discoveries in astrophysics are often published, like this paper was, on the preprint server Papers can then be viewed by the scientific community before they undergo the peer review process. Some academics say that this allows a wider reaction to be gained more quickly.

“ArXiv allows for rapid dissemination of results to the community,” says Marc Kamionkowski, professor of Physics and Astronomy at John Hopkins University, Baltimore.  “It is understood that, since arXiv is not refereed, that papers on arXiv come with a buyer beware clause.  Even so, the quality control that is self-imposed by authors is impressive, and the vast majority of arXiv papers in astrophysics are then published without dramatic changes.”

Professor Kamionkowski believes arXiv to be a good thing, and that it does not change the peer review process. “Referees still read papers and judge them in much the same way that they did before arXiv”, he says.

He also thinks that the gravitational waves paper will undoubtedly be submitted, and accepted, to an academic journal very soon. “I think that this is an amazing discovery, the kind of thing that happens at most once every few decades.”

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