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Elsevier retracts Duesberg’s AIDS Denialist article

09 September 2009

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There can be few greater embarrassments for scientists than for a publisher to retract their papers forcibly. This is exactly what has happened to two AIDS denialist articles, one of them co-authored by Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick. Here is what happened.

In 2008, the Journal of AIDS (JAIDS) published an article by Pride Chigwedere [1] and colleagues of Harvard University, who estimated that delays in providing antiretroviral drugs in South Africa due to state-supported AIDS denialism had caused over 300,000 deaths. This publication confirmed the results of a previous study by South African professor and member Nicoli Nattrass. [2] AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg, whose influence on the disastrous South African government policies was mentioned in Chigwedere’s article, submitted a response to JAIDS that was co-authored by four others including Rasnick. After this article was rejected because of its poor academic quality, Duesberg et al. submitted it to a different journal, Medical Hypotheses. Two days later, the editor accepted the paper. Medical Hypotheses does not practice peer review, a process in which several scientists check a submitted academic paper for quality and suggest needed improvements over a period of weeks or months. The Duesberg et al. paper was accepted without such a review process, after inspection only by the editor of Medical Hypotheses.

That Duesberg’s paper was not properly reviewed by experts is painfully obvious, as neither facts nor logic are allowed to temper the authors’ denialist speculations and opinions. For example, they argue that AIDS is not a problem in Africa because the total population of Africa has increased during the AIDS era. One could as easily conclude that cancers are never fatal, since the population of California has increased despite the presence of these diseases. Duesberg et al. also say antiretroviral medicines have not reduced AIDS mortality, an obvious lie since these drugs have drastically lowered mortality. Worse, Duesberg et al. say they derived this idea from a scientific article. [3] In fact, the article they cite states nothing of the sort; it actually shows that a newer combination of antiretroviral drugs is not substantially better than an older combination. Of course, both these combinations are better than Duesberg’s favored treatment option – nothing. Doing nothing in the face of HIV infection is, however, very often a death sentence, as it was to over 300,000 South Africans. [1,2]

Duesberg’s article was the latest in a string of low-quality and in some cases offensive publications in Medical Hypotheses, including at least one apparently racist article and the other now-retracted denialist paper, entitled “Aids denialism at the ministry of health” by Ruggiero et al. (2009 Jul 6). [4,5]

How were these papers accepted in the first place? Medical Hypotheses is published by the prestigious publishing company Elsevier and, more importantly, indexed on PubMed, the definitive source of medical literature run by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) in the United States. Journals indexed in PubMed must meet certain standards. The NLM explains, “Scientific merit of a journal's content is the primary consideration in selecting journals for indexing. The validity, importance, originality, and contribution to the coverage of the field of the overall contents of each title are the key factors considered in recommending a title for indexing, whatever the intended purpose and audience.” [6] Because the Duesberg et al. and Ruggiero et al. papers so obviously lack scientific merit, several scientists became concerned that Medical Hypotheses does not satisfy the NLM’s requirements. By giving space to lies about HIV and AIDS, and by “legitimizing” AIDS denialists via inclusion of their names on PubMed, the journal has also become a potential threat to public health. members therefore drafted a letter to the NLM outlining these concerns. It was signed by 20 scientists and activists and stated, “We, the undersigned, respectfully request that the journal Medical Hypotheses be reviewed for MEDLINE deselection at the earliest convenience of the Literature Selection Technical Review Committee. Medical Hypotheses does not appear to meet the standards for MEDLINE listing as established by the National Library of Medicine, and recent publications in the journal are inconsistent with the stated missions of the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health.” [7] The NLM responded that it would review the journal in October of 2009.

Separately, Elsevier was made aware of the problems. John Moore, an HIV scientist at Weill Cornell Medical College and a former, founding member of, and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Nobel Prize Laureate and co-discoverer of HIV, each wrote to Elsevier objecting to the Ruggiero et al. and Duesberg et al. articles. To Elsevier's credit, Executive Vice President of Global Medical Research Journals, Glen Campbell, responded by stating that he shared the concerns expressed. In his letter to Dr. Barré-Sinoussi, Dr. Campbell referred to the Duesberg et al. article and the “implications of its wider dissemination for global health care.” [8] Campbell also stated that Elsevier had retracted both the Duesberg et al. and Ruggiero et al. articles with immediate effect, and had begun an internal review of the processes “by which these two articles were accepted.” Elsevier also committed to “reviewing the polices and practices of Medical Hypotheses.” We applaud Elsevier and Dr. Campbell for responding so constructively and effectively.

An additional area of concern is that Duesberg et al. declared in the Medical Hypotheses paper that the authors had no conflict of interests, a statement that is made by the corresponding author, Duesberg, on behalf of all the authors. This statement was inaccurate: Co-author David Rasnick was until recently employed in South Africa by vitamin salesman Matthias Rath, whose company's marketing strategy is based on undermining public confidence in antiretroviral drugs. [9] The attack by Duesberg et al. on the use of anti-retroviral drugs in South Africa could therefore be of considerable commercial value to Rasnick’s ex-employer, a conflict of interest that should have been declared in the paper. Complaints about this ethical issue have now been sent to both the University of California, Berkeley (where Duesberg has tenure) and Elsevier. will give further updates on this matter as it develops. Meanwhile, where there was once the abstract of Peter Duesberg's latest AIDS denialist article, the following statement can now be found on PubMed:

This Article-in-Press has been withdrawn pending the results of an investigation. The editorial policy of Medical Hypotheses makes it clear that the journal considers "radical, speculative, and non-mainstream scientific ideas", and articles will only be acceptable if they are "coherent and clearly expressed." However, we have received serious expressions of concern about the quality of this article, which contains highly controversial opinions about the causes of AIDS, opinions that could potentially be damaging to global public health. Concern has also been expressed that the article contains potentially libelous material. Given these important signals of concern, we judge it correct to investigate the circumstances in which this article came to be published online. When the investigation and review have been completed we will issue a further statement. Until that time, the article has been removed from all Elsevier databases. The Publisher apologizes for any inconvenience this may cause. The full Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal can be found at [10]

[1] Chigwedere P, Seage G, Gruskin S, et al. Estimating the lost benefits of antiretroviral drug use in South Africa [Internet]. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr. 2008. Available at:

[2] Nattrass, N. AIDS and the Scientific Governance of Medicine in Post-Apartheid South Africa. African Affairs, 2008. Available at:

[3] May MT, Sterne JA, Costagliola D, et al. HIV treatment response and prognosis in Europe and North America in the first decade of highly active antiretroviral therapy: a collaborative analysis. Lancet, 2006. Available through:

[4] The article is retracted on PubMed with a suitable notice. See

[5] For examples of other poor-quality articles, as well as the racist one, published by Medical Hypotheses, see

[6] NLM. Medline Journal Selection.

[7] The complete letter is here.

[8] The response from Elsevier to Barré-Sinoussi can be read here.

[9] See

[10] See