Monday, 18 January 2010

Medical Hypotheses

I've often read published work I've thought less than stellar. But it's never occurred to me to ask the press that publishes the journal to shut the journal down. Writes Times Higher Education (HT Mangan's, via Patri Friedman)
It has published papers on everything from ejaculation as a treatment for nasal congestion to why modern scientists are so dull, but the future of Medical Hypotheses is hanging in the balance after a host of complaints from high-profile researchers.

The irreverent publication is the only Elsevier journal not to subject its submissions to peer review. Instead, its editor decides what to publish on the basis of how interesting or radical a paper is, and how well expressed the arguments are.

But its future is in doubt after editor-in-chief Bruce Charlton, professor of theoretical medicine at the University of Buckingham, published a paper from a well-known HIV/Aids denier.

The paper, "HIV-Aids hypothesis out of touch with South African Aids - A new perspective", was published online last July. It was written by Peter Duesberg, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues.

It argues that there is "as yet no proof that HIV causes Aids" and says the claim that the virus has killed millions is "unconfirmed".

Prominent Aids researchers contacted Elsevier to object to the article and wrote to the US National Library of Medicine requesting that Medical Hypotheses be removed from the Medline citation database - an act that would exclude it from the mainstream scientific-communication network.
The Medical Hypotheses Blog responds:
MEDICAL HYPOTHESES, however, was founded nearly thirty-five years ago in an attempt to provide an outlet for medical research that runs contrary to received opinion and is too controversial to be published in peer-reviewed medical journals. David Horrobin, our founding editor, believed that the peer-review system can impede the growth of science by systematically rejecting articles that fall outside the consensus of scientific belief.
I used to think that it would be too ironic, given the history of MEDICAL HYPOTHESES, if Elsevier were to subject our policy on peer review to peer review. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The panel of experts that Elsevier enlisted to investigate how we came to accept Duesberg’s article for publication has now completed its report. It does, indeed, recommend that articles submitted to the journal be subject to peer review. It also recommends that Elsevier impose a list of forbidden topics of a controversial or politically-incorrect nature to be excluded from the journal.
Peer review is important, but there is no reason that each and every journal in existence must be peer reviewed. Everyone knows or ought to know that Medical Hypotheses exists to publish controversial work that would have a hard time getting through the conformity pressures of peer review; it's more a journal of interesting and dissenting voices than "settled science".

I don't know whether Bruce Charlton owns Medical Hypotheses or if Elsevier owns it. But if he does own it, he ought perhaps be shopping for a better publisher.

At the current margin, there should be more, not fewer, journals that publish papers based on editorial rather than peer review. Those journals should be strongly identified with the editor to align reputational incentives.

In a way, we're moving towards that kind of a system already: trusted blogs point to endorsed working papers prior to their publication or acceptance. I'd put even odds that a Marginal Revolution link to an unpublished working paper does more for that paper's citation count than acceptance at most journals. At what point do particular trustworthy individual become more important as imprimatur than journal acceptance processes?

We have better choice of filters now than we did twenty years ago. I'll pick Charlton as filter for interesting over a committee process any day.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your coverage Eric.

    The situation is that Elsevier own Medical Hypotheses and employ me as Editor. A

    nd until recently Elsevier have given me complete editorial independence, within the journal's defined Scope and Aims and approved methods - as is proper and appropriate in science.

    I completely agree on the need for more editorially reviewed journals. The fact that Medical Hypotheses 1. makes a profit, 2. has a decent impact factor (1.4), 3. a high download usage (half a million per year), and 4. very rapid decisions on papers (within 2 weeks, often faster) suggests that 'the market' would like more journals of this type too.

    Bruce G Charlton