Higgs papers pass peer review! So what?

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Today the internet is abuzz with the news that the papers from ATLAS and CMS announcing their discovery of the Higgs boson have passed peer review and are officially published in Physics Letters B. That means now they’re actual science, right?

Not really. (I’m assuming the ExtremeTech headline was a bit of a joke.) Peer review is really not as big of a deal as people outside the scientific community are often led to think. In particular, “peer-reviewed” does not mean “correct.” Peer review is just a high-level check to make sure that the paper isn’t complete nonsense and that the problem it’s addressing is relevant and interesting. Journals have limited space to publish these things, and they have to determine which of the many submissions they get are the most worthy of being put in that space. That’s what the peer review process is for.

When something comes out of a big experimental collaboration like ATLAS or CMS, though, it has already gone through a rigorous vetting process. Doubly so for a high-profile result like this one — in fact, I’m sure the results had been double- and triple-checked by dozens of people even before they were presented in July, and by thousands more afterwards. So there was no question that these papers would sail through the peer review process, which usually consists of just a couple of reviewers giving the paper the once-over. They certainly didn’t need the word of a journal editor to become actual science; they had that distinction all along.

P.S. This comment on Reddit explains the same thing in even more detail. Go forth and read!