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Anthony N. DeMaria, MD, MACC, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 3655 Nobel Drive, Suite 400, San Diego, California 92122, USA.
This past April marked the 50th anniversary of publication of the manuscript describing the double helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) by James Watson and Francis Crick (1). This was, of course, truly a landmark publication and has been said to have given birth to the field of molecular biology. Identification of the double helix configuration formed the basis for defining genes and their mutation as well as providing a mechanism for the way in which DNA is copied and transmitted from one generation to another. The seminal importance of this discovery is evidenced by the fact that Natureand Scientific American, among other periodicals, devoted their covers to the event.
There can be no overestimating the impact that the description of the double helix has had on science in general and medicine in particular. With the recent completion of the Human Genome Project, genomics stands poised to play a role in virtually every aspect of medicine. Nevertheless, one wonders why certain discoveries achieve such a prominent role in our consciousness and become so well celebrated. Perhaps it is due to the fact that Watson and Crick are both alive and actively involved in research, or possibly it is related to the recent achievement of sequencing the human genome. Perhaps it is just that the work represented the best of scientific research: that it was performed by two young unheralded individuals working with whatever tools they could muster and pursuing their work for the sake of knowledge and the advancement of science. Regardless, it is clear that this research article has reached the pinnacle of reverence and admiration of scientific publications.
The manuscript by Watson and Crick had enormous and widespread implications. As the editor of a medical journal, however, I cannot help but focus on a number of aspects of their article relative to our current medical literature. To begin with, their entire report barely filled one page, including an illustration and a final paragraph expressing thanks for assistance. Their article surely must have equaled or surpassed the record for the most scientific impact per word. Our current limitation for manuscripts in JACCis 5,000 words, or about 5 pages exclusive of illustrations and tables. Nevertheless, many articles exceed even this limit upon submission. We often ask authors to reduce the length of their articles in order to print as much meritorious work as possible. Although I felt uncomfortable doing this at first, in light of the ability of Watson and Crick to describe the structure of DNA in one page, I don’t feel it is much of an imposition anymore. In fact, my own Editor’s Page sections often run two pages, and I doubt anyone will remember them 50 days from now, much less 50 years.
The article in Naturewas remarkable in that Watson and Crick did not put forth a hypothesis and had not performed a single experiment with DNA. Their research methods, not described in the manuscript, involved the creation of potential models of the structure of DNA using metal and cardboard. When they identified a model that fit the known characteristics of DNA, they published it without direct validation. In my experience, contemporary reviewers for JACCwould be extremely critical of this approach. The lack of a clear hypothesis is often cited as one of the reasons that an article has been assigned a low priority for acceptance. In addition, I feel confident that, were the Watson and Crick manuscript peer reviewed today, the editors would be advised to return the manuscript to the authors with the recommendation that experiments be performed to validate the proposed structure of DNA.
In the opening paragraph of the article, Watson and Crick wrote that they thought the structure of DNA they were about to describe would have “considerable biologic interest.” This gross understatement stands in contrast to the claims of many contemporary articles that the questions they are addressing are of great clinical importance or are crucial to the understanding of a phenomenon or mechanism. The Naturemanuscript goes on to say that a manuscript on nucleic acid structure by Pauling and Corey, which was in press, had been made “available to us prior to publication.” It is likely that this has implications regarding the current embargo rules imposed by many journals. Pauling’s generosity was rewarded by the statement that the structure they had proposed was “unsatisfactory” for a number of reasons.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Watson and Crick manuscript relative to contemporary literature, however, was the statement that their findings were not established with certainty. In fact, they wrote that the structure reported “must be regarded as unproved until it has been checked by more exact results.” Given the admission that their findings required confirmation, and the absence of direct DNA data, one might expect that they would have been criticized by some present-day reviewers for submitting “preliminary findings” or for “pure speculation.” A common assessment of manuscripts such as Watson’s and Crick’s might have been that it was “hypothesis generating.” The editors would not be surprised to receive a recommendation that such a manuscript be considered as an opinion-oriented viewpoint piece rather than an original research article or, perhaps, that it not be recommended for acceptance at all.
There is one respect in which the manuscript describing the double helix resembles the articles in our current journal issues. Despite the reverence it is now accorded, the article in Naturedid not receive great attention in the years following publication. In fact, as gauged by the number of citations in the literature (the metric that is the basis of the impact factor), the article received only modest attention initially, achieved a brief peak in citations in 1963 after the Nobel Prize was awarded, and did not experience a major increase in citations until the 1990s. While the exact interpretation of this muted response to the article is uncertain, it is consistent with the concept that the true importance of research is not always apparent when it is initially reported. In fact, identification of the double helix did not play a major role in the subsequent scientific direction of even the Cambridge laboratory in which the discovery was made (2). The frequent failure to recognize the true significance of research findings until long after their publication acts as a strong deterrent to the hubris of editors or reviewers regarding their ability to identify those important manuscripts that warrant the highest priority for acceptance.
Another aspect the Watson and Crick article shares with many scientific publications, past and present, is that it represented the culmination of a body of work being carried out by a number of investigators in different locations. As mentioned earlier, Linus Pauling was in hot pursuit of the structure of nucleic acids, and Perutz and Kendall were defining the structure of hemoglobin. Oswald Avery in New York and Max Delbruck in Nashville were working on genetic transmission. Watson and Crick’s colleagues at Cambridge, Maurice Wilkins (also awarded the Nobel Prize) and Rosalin Franklin were working with X-ray diffraction. In fact, this work was said to have been responsible for the recognition of the double helix structure of DNA by Watson and Crick. Nevertheless, it was the final step in defining the structure of DNA that captured the imagination and is viewed now as an almost singular achievement. As is so often the case, although scientific breakthroughs characteristically occur slowly through the work of many investigators, a single manuscript usually crystallizes the accomplishment in our scientific memory.
As we look back on the Watson and Crick manuscript after 50 years, there are a number of lessons to take away. Clearly, scientific discoveries of monumental importance do not require lengthly presentations. Likewise, although authors and editors often have well formed opinions about the importance of their work, only history can provide a true assessment. The criteria we regularly apply in judging the merit of original research articles may be inappropriate and yield inaccurate evaluations. Finally, although great discoveries are nearly always the result of a sustained effort by many contributors, they are often represented in our collective memory by a single publication that captures our attention. There is much to learn from the manuscript in Natureby Watson and Crick, both in terms of DNA and the process by which science advances.
↵1 Editor-in-Chief, Journal of the American College of Cardiology
- American College of Cardiology Foundation