Sunday, March 14, 2010

Medical Hypotheses in Hot Water

AC's beloved journal Medical Hypotheses is in a bit of trouble over HIV-denial papers published in its pages, Science is reporting. Medical Hypotheses does not have a peer review process - the only journal in the Elsevier family with this distinction - which allows it to publish some of the wacky papers and bizarre hypotheses that make such good blog fodder. Publication decisions are made by the editor-in-chief, Bruce Charlton, who is now under pressure from Elsevier to either resign or implement some form of peer review. The paper in question was written by Peter Duesberg, a well known denier of the HIV-AIDS connection.
After the paper's publication, prominent HIV scientists John Moore of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and Nobelist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi of the Pasteur Institute in Paris wrote Elsevier to ask that the paper be withdrawn. Others asked the National Library of Medicine to delist Medical Hypotheses from the MEDLINE database of biomedical literature, and called on scientists to urge their librarians to cancel the journal. (They also took aim at a second AIDS paper by molecular biologist Marco Ruggiero of the University of Florence, which they say was denialist in nature as well.)
The paper has since been pulled by the publisher, but reaction to the reaction has been mixed. Some see it as a good step towards fixing what is seen as a problem with the journal, with others, including Duesberg, decrying the move as censorship or not in keeping with the journal's mission.


gawp said...

I quite like Medical Hypotheses, there are some awesome papers in there. If they're careful about how they do peer review it may be able to retain some of the character of the journal.

I'd recommend selecting reviewers from those who have themselves published more speculative papers. As well, clear guidelines for rejection should be provided; facts and logical arguments must be correct, the claimed hypothesis must be testable (with the mechanism of verification proposed and plausible) however the reviewer need not agree with the claim.

So this paper would be rejected by those standards:,
As the many of the stated "facts" were shown to be false in the sense that they were deprecated by recent genomics data.

There are plenty of gray areas in the map of knowledge and hypothesizing about what strange beasties may live there is fun and may ultimately be fruitful.

Anonymous Coward said...

I don't know what to make of this. Everybody knows that Medical Hypotheses is a joke. It's like the journal of improbable research. Sometimes some hypotheses being published are down right untestable, but as long as everybody is aware of that... Sometimes crazy theories are useful even if they ultimately are wrong. Also everybody knows Duesberg is a douche, and the fact that he can only be published there just exemplifies how crazy he is. It shouldn't have been published, because I don't think it fits with the flair of the journal. But as far as crazy goes, it's more than qualified...

Kamel said...

I'm with you both - I enjoy that journal as well (it's hard not too) and it would be a shame to see it lose its character through imposed changes. But I can understand where Elsevier is coming from. Like you say, everybody knows it's a joke and and a heavyweight science publisher like Elsevier probably isn't really into publishing jokes (the Merck fakery notwithstanding).

Getting fringe ideas out there isn't a terrible thing though and there's no reason some sort of review or standards would compromise the journal's mission. PLoS ONE has peer review, but is clear that it's not reviewing for impact but for 'scientific soundness'. I think gawp's suggestions are right on.