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Elsevier issues ultimatum to Medical Hypotheses editor

11 March 2010

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In a stunning indictment of the pseudoscience published in Medical Hypotheses, the journal's publisher has issued an ultimatum to the editor: implement peer review or resign. This comes after the retraction of two AIDS denialist papers that the journal published, which were unanimously rejected by five reviewers in a process managed by The Lancet. The papers,  “HIV-AIDS hypothesis out of touch with South African AIDS: A new perspective” by Peter Duesberg and  “AIDS denialism at the ministry of health” by Marco Ruggiero, caused great concern in the scientific community and several prominent AIDS researchers wrote to the publisher expressing their concern. The retractions and Elsevier's decision to implement peer review at the journal will no doubt be held up by denialists as evidence of "censorship," but in fact illustrates that "dissident science" does not stand up to the scrutiny of peer review. Medical Hypotheses does not conduct peer review and had under the leadership of its present editor, Bruce Charlton, become a haven for pseudoscience of various kinds, including AIDS denialism.

Below are two reports on the publisher's steps to reform Medical Hypotheses.

Zoë Corbyn writes in Times Higher Education:

The editor of the journal Medical Hypotheses has been given until 15 March either to implement changes to adopt a traditional peer-review system, or to resign.

He has also been told that even if he stays with the journal, his contract will not be renewed at the end of the year.

As Times Higher Education reported in January, publisher Elsevier is attempting to rein in its unorthodox journal, which publishes papers on the basis of how interesting or radical they are rather than using peer review, after it published a paper last July that denied the link between HIV and Aids.

The article prompted an outcry from Aids researchers, leading Elsevier to propose changes to both introduce peer review and exclude papers on certain controversial topics.

But Elsevier’s plans have been vehemently opposed by the journal’s editor, Bruce Charlton, its editorial advisory board and a large number of Medical Hypotheses’ authors, who have mounted a campaign to save the journal, believing it offers an important outlet for radical ideas.

Professor Charlton said: “Elsevier is asking me either to resign immediately, or else immediately to begin implementing changes that it has unilaterally and irrationally demanded. But my conscience will not allow me… I cannot do either of these things.”

The news comes as two controversial papers on the Aids virus that had been retracted from the journal following the outcry are “permanently withdrawn” after they failed to pass the test of peer review.

The papers in question are “HIV-AIDS hypothesis out of touch with South African AIDS: A new perspective” by Peter Duesberg, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a paper published the same month, “AIDS denialism at the ministry of health” by Marco Ruggiero, professor of molecular biology at the University of Florence.

Both papers are being permanently withdrawn from the scientific record, even though the Ruggiero paper does not deny the link between HIV and Aids, but argues that the Italian Ministry of Health seemed not to believe that HIV is the “sole cause” of the Aids virus.

The papers were both rejected unanimously by five anonymous reviewers in a process managed by The Lancet, another Elsevier journal.

But Professor Charlton said he rejected both the process and outcome of this assessment, and accused Elsevier of running a “show trial” and making a “gross mistake”.

Read the full article.

ScienceInsider reports:

The editor of the journal Medical Hypotheses—an oddity in the world of scientific publishing because it does not practice peer review—is about to lose his job over the publication last summer of a paper that says HIV does not cause AIDS. Publishing powerhouse Elsevier today told editor Bruce Charlton that it won't renew his contract, which expires at the end of 2010, and it asked that Charlton resign immediately or implement a series of changes in his editorial policy, including putting a system of peer review in place. Charlton, who teaches evolutionary psychology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom, says he will do neither, and some on the editorial advisory board say they may resign in protest if he is fired.

Elsevier's move is the latest in an 8-month battle over the journal; it comes after an anonymous panel convened by Elsevier recommended drastic changes to the journal's course, and five scientists reviewed the controversial paper and unanimously panned it.

Medical Hypotheses, which says it "will consider radical, speculative and non-mainstream scientific ideas provided they are coherently expressed," is the only Elsevier journal not to practice peer review. Scientist, entrepreneur, and author David Horrobin, who founded the journal in 1975, believed reviewers tend to dislike what lies outside the scientific mainstream and thus are reluctant to embrace new ideas, however promising. Charlton, who succeeded Horrobin in 2003, takes the same view: He decides what gets published himself—although he occasionally will consult another scientist—and manuscripts are edited only very lightly. As thejournal's Web site explains, "the editor sees his role as a 'chooser', not a 'changer.' "

It's a policy that leads to the occasional wild and wacky paper—a 2009 article for which the author studied his own navel lint became an instant classic—but the journal is also a "unique and excellent" venue for airing new and valuable ideas, says neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran of the University of California (UC), San Diego, who published in the journal 15 times himself and sits on its editorial advisory board. "There are ideas that may seem implausible but which are very important if true," Ramachandran says. "This is the only place you can get them published."


Duesberg—who has not published anything on HIV the past decade except for one paper in a journal published by the Indian Academy of Sciences—says Elsevier's measures are the latest example of "censorship" imposed by the "AIDS establishment." But Medical Hypotheses' critics applaud the publisher’s latest step. "It seems clear that Elsevier has come to realize that there is a problem with Medical Hypotheses and that they are doing what they can to rectify it," says Moore.

Read the full article.