Friday, 7 May 2010

Charlton's farewell

Elsevier's behaviour in sacking Bruce Charlton as editor of Medical Hypotheses has been reprehensible. Here's his farewell address at his blog:
Did I know that the Duesberg paper would be controversial?

Yes. I knew that Duesberg was being kept out of the mainstream scientific literature, and that breaching this conspiracy would annoy those who had succeeded in excluding him for so long.

When I published the Duesberg article, I envisaged it meeting one of two possible fates.

In the first scenario, the paper would be shunned or simply ignored - dropped down the memory hole. This is what has usually happened in the past when a famous scientist published ideas that their colleagues regarded as misguided or crazy. Linus Pauling (1901-94) was a Nobel prizewinner and one of the most important chemists in history. Yet his views on the medical benefits of vitamin C were regarded as wrong. He was allowed to publish them, but (rightly or wrongly) they were generally ignored in mainstream science.

In the other scenario, Duesberg's paper would attract robust criticism and (apparent) refutation. This happened with Fred Hoyle (1915-2001), a Fellow of the Royal Society whose work on the "steady state" theory of the Universe made him one of the most important cosmologists of the late 20th century. But his views on the origins of life on Earth and the Archaeopteryx fossil were generally regarded as eccentric. Hoyle's ideas were published, attracted much criticism, and were (probably) refuted.

So I expected that Duesberg's paper either would be ignored or would trigger letters and other papers countering the ideas and evidence presented. Medical Hypotheses would have published these counter-arguments, then provided space for Duesberg to respond to the criticisms and later allowed critics to reply to Duesberg's defence. That is, after all, how real science is supposed to work.

What I did not expect was that editors and scientists would be bypassed altogether, and that the matter would be settled by the senior managers of a multinational publishing corporation in consultation with pressure-group activists. Certainly, that would never have happened 25 years ago, when I began research in science.
Charlton's farewell lists a few of the times where controversial papers published in Med Hypotheses have gone on to prove highly influential.

It's a real shame that diversity across journals can't be maintained. Medical Hypotheses is one of the very few journals that is editorially reviewed rather than peer reviewed. It would be a mistake if the majority of journals were run this way, but it's rather important that a few out there are, provided the editor has a suitably contrarian turn.

Let's hope that Charlton eventually begins a new journal to take its place.

1 comment:

  1. I'm rather surprised they sacked him, seems a bit of an over-reaction given some of the other speculative articles the journal has published in the past without any editorial interference or repercussions.

    I think there is place for journals that publish articles outside of the mainstream thinking but I guess it's a fine line between non-mainstream thinking and full on crazy.

    I particularly enjoyed the whole 'we got drunk on cheap wine and wrote this on the back of a napkin' feel of the article comparing Downs Syndrome and Orientals behaviour characteristics.