Editor digs in over Medical Hypotheses reform

Bruce Charlton rejects Elsevier ultimatum to implement peer review as publisher threatens him with the sack. Zoë Corbyn reports

April 7, 2010

The editor of a journal who is locked in a battle with the publisher Elsevier has accused the company of “riding roughshod” over his editorial independence after being told that he will be sacked next month unless he implements changes imposed from above.

Bruce Charlton, editor of Medical Hypotheses, has been fighting Elsevier’s plans to revamp the 34-year-old title since he was informed in January of proposals to change the criteria used to select the papers it publishes.

Elsevier intends to abolish the current system, under which Professor Charlton chooses papers according to how interesting or radical they are, and implement peer review instead.

The decision followed the publication by Medical Hypotheses of a paper last July that denied the link between HIV and Aids, provoking outcry from researchers.

Last month, Elsevier issued Professor Charlton, who is contracted as editor until the end of the year, with an ultimatum: adopt a traditional peer-review system or resign.

He wrote back, saying that he would do neither.

“My decision is to continue as editor-in-chief of Medical Hypotheses, without change to its mission or procedures, at least until my current contract expires,” he wrote.

Elsevier has now responded by giving him notice that he will be sacked on 11 May unless he agrees to its plans.

But Professor Charlton has claimed that Elsevier would be breaching his contract if it followed through with this action.

He accused the publisher of “ignoring the procedures” for changing the journal’s aims, scope and editorial policy, which are set out in the contract.

The professor of theoretical medicine at the University of Buckingham added that Elsevier had also “grossly infringed” his academic freedom.

“My contract states that proposals to change the journal should come from the editor in consultation with the advisory board and then be cleared with the publisher – the exact opposite of what has happened,” he told Times Higher Education.

“I have never been formally asked to make proposals as a basis for discussion, nor have I been given any rationale for changing the journal – merely the assertion that it must be changed.”

He added that the company was “riding roughshod over editorial independence and basic employment rights, and is simply bullying an editor out of a job he has been doing well for the past six-plus years”.

Elsevier defended its stance.

Tom Reller, vice-president for global corporate relations at the publisher, said: “Fair-minded and objective observers of the relationship between Elsevier and Professor Charlton over the past several months would conclude that he has been extended every professional courtesy in regard to his work as an editor.

“The steps we’ve taken have been warranted and we’ve followed strict ethical, industry and contractual codes in our dealings with Professor Charlton.”

He added: “Simply put, as the owner of the journal, we have every right and obligation to make the final decision on its editorial policies.”

While some have lobbied Elsevier to overhaul Medical Hypotheses, others have spoken out in favour of its current form.

Marc Abrahams, organiser of the Ig Nobel Prizes – which celebrate unusual research – said it was rare and important to have a science journal that published “educated guesses”.

He added that, as long as it was clearly labelled as such, Medical Hypotheses should not be forced to adopt a peer-review system.

“What makes the case really strange is that, as far as I can tell, this is mostly a reaction to one little group’s fervent campaign in reaction to one article,” he said.

Mr Abrahams described Professor Charlton as “one of the great British eccentrics”.

“I say that admiringly. Britain treasures its great eccentrics. Elsevier apparently does not,” he added.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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