Publisher attempts to rein in radical medical journal

Editor rejects proposal to have submissions peer reviewed. Zoë Corbyn reports

January 23, 2010

The publisher of Medical Hypotheses has proposed that the irreverent journal should be revamped as an orthodox peer-review publication.

In a letter to the editor, Elsevier proposes a “revised and more focused aim and scope” for the journal and a “peer-review process for all submitted articles”.

To achieve this, it suggests a “review of editorial board membership” and development of a “wide pool of reviewers”.

“We would plan a relaunch once these changes have been implemented,” Elsevier says in the letter seen by Times Higher Education.

Medical Hypotheses, which was established more than 30 years ago, is the only Elsevier journal that does not currently subject its submissions to peer review.

Instead, its editor Bruce Charlton, professor of theoretical medicine at the University of Buckingham, decides what to publish on the basis of whether the submissions are radical, interesting and well argued.

The proposals for change follow recommendations from a panel of scientists set up by Elsevier to review the journal's future after it published a paper that denied the link between HIV and Aids.

The paper, written by well-known HIV/Aids denier Peter Duesberg, argued that there is “as yet no proof that HIV causes Aids” and says the claim that the virus has killed millions is “unconfirmed”.

It provoked outcry from researchers in the field, some of whom contacted Elsevier to object. The publisher retracted the paper and set up the review panel, whose members have not been named.

The panel took a dim view of Medical Hypotheses’ approach, recommending that it adopts a system of peer review and that its scope changes to curtail “radical” ideas.

“[Elsevier should] devise and publicise a safety net that guards against publication of baseless, speculative, non-testable and potentially harmful ideas,” it recommends, adding that the publisher should also “make it clear” when topics are off limits.

It suggests “novel ‘scientific’ hypotheses supporting racism, the subjugation of women, [and] eugenics” as examples of topics that may be deemed inappropriate.

“The likelihood that ‘radical ideas’ on such topics represent useful new concepts is vanishingly small, the likelihood that their foundation is unethical is great,” it says.

“Even if offered strong proof of concept, would you want to publish articles supporting them under any circumstances? ...their publication in a ‘scientific’ journal is an important political tool for groups needing the respectability of publication to support a noxious agenda.”

Professor Charlton said he has received more than 120 letters of support for retaining Medical Hypotheses in its current form, after he launched a campaign to save the title. He said neither he nor his editorial advisory board would tolerate the changes proposed.

“Medical Hypotheses has for 34 years been editorially reviewed and radical,” he said. “Therefore [the proposals] cannot possibly be acceptable.”

When initially contacted by THE, Elsevier suggested it had made no recommendation that the journal should move to a peer-review system.

Presented with the text of the letter to Professor Charlton, it said that “no decision on any change will be taken until we have gone through a consultation process”.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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