Medical Hypotheses

The phone call started out the usual way. A research faculty wanted to talk to me about a journal. These calls are always about one of two things: they’re requesting a new subscription for the library, or they’re having trouble accessing our electronic version. But then the conversation took a strange twist. He wasn’t recommending a journal. He was asking us to consider canceling a journal. I told him in my 29 years of collection development, this was the first such request I had received.

The title in question is Medical Hypotheses, from Elsevier. Our library has subscribed since it began in 1975, and we converted to e-only in 2007. Our researcher’s problem with the journal is its apparent lack of peer review, and that it has become a place where fringe science can get published, thereby gaining credibility. His area is microbiology and immunology, and he sent me a copy of a letter he sent to the CEO of Elsevier, complaining about several papers published in the journal from AIDS denialists.

AIDS denialists do not believe that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS. The scientific community overwhelmingly believes it does. While this may seem to be a minor argument, or as harmless as flat-earthers, the denialists have been able to affect public health, particularly in Africa, by dissuading people from using approved AIDS treatments. Our researcher is concerned that Medical Hypotheses, by publishing papers from these denialists, is harming public health.

Other scientists and journalists are also concerned about this journal. Journalist Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science, has several blog entries on what appear to be far less than scientific articles published in the journal.

The Neurodiversity blog calls Medical Hypotheses “a vanity journal that offers space to anyone who can write a marginally readable article on any medically-related subject — no matter how outlandish or scientifically insupportable.”

ScienceBlogs cuts right to the chase in a post called “Medical Hypotheses – just make shit up; we’ll publish it.”

Objectively, the journal doesn’t have much going for it. In Journal Citation Reports‘ category of “Medicine, research & experimental,” the journal has an impact factor of 1.416, ranking 57th out of 82 journals. This places it in the third quartile. Many of the articles are accepted for publication two days after being received, which certainly strains the definition of peer review.

I told the faculty member about the minimal cancellation allowances in our ScienceDirect license, and that I might not be able to cancel the title this year. In the meantime, I can’t track online usage because ScienceDirect’s usage report page has gone missing. Have other libraries canceled this title because of complaints?

Update July 27, 2009: I can now retrieve our ScienceDirect usage reports. Medical Hypotheses is within our top 200 Elsevier titles based on usage. (We get over 2500 titles in our license, shared with the main campus.) Based on usage alone, this title would not be considered for cancellation. I’ll share these numbers with our faculty person who recommended cancellation.


6 responses to “Medical Hypotheses

  1. Bruce G Charlton

    Hi – this is the Editor in Chief of Medical Hypotheses.

    There is no mystery about Medical Hypotheses – it is NOT a peer reviewed journal, and never has been, and does not claim to be. The submissions are editorially reviewed, by me, and I usually do this very quickly; and all this is made crystal clear on the journal’s home page.

    I have published an article about editorial review in the British Medical Journal.

    I believe that peer review has serious limitations, and that there should also be editorially reviewed journals as an alternative. Editorial review was, in fact, the normal mode of academic publishing until just a few decades ago (i.e. during the ‘golden age’ of science).

    I’m surprised you are so dismissive of an Impact Factor of 1.416 – this is surely way too high for a journal that supposedly publishes rubbish! Also we get half a million downloads per year, which is (as you will know) pretty impressive.

    Review policy is merely a means to the end of publishing work of value to the scientific community – and the journal’s IF and downloads demonstrate objectively that it plays a role in medical science.

    Our editorial advisory board includes a Nobel Prizewinner (Arvid Carsson), and others of the stature of Sir Roy Calne, Antonio Damasio and VS Ramachandran. They support the idea of a journal which tries to publish bold and challenging ideas, and they see the value of editorial review as a complement to the near universal domination of peer review.

    And yes we do publish some apparently-bizarre, and some actually-bizarre, ideas too – and are proud to do so! Most modern science is way too dull and timid, and history shows that scientists have often learned from interesting partial truths or even mistakes.

    The Times (of London) journalist Roger Dobson recently published a book of 100 of the more unusual ideas from the journal’s history called ‘Death Can Be Cured – and 99 other medical hypotheses.’

    So that – in a nutshell – is Medical Hypotheses.

  2. Concerning popularity, it’s no mystery that Medical Hypotheses is a fine source of entertainment for some scientists. Hence the downloads, which I have a strange feeling might peak late every Friday afternoon when those “dull and timid” modern scientists are draining some cold ones at happy hour. Everyone’s gotta love (no, really) how MH takes us back to the “golden age of science” when “mongoloids” were similar to “Orientals” because they both supposedly liked basketweaving (“Down subjects and Oriental population share several specific attitudes and characteristics.” Medical Hypotheses, 2007.) You can’t make this stuff up. Kind of like “The Onion”, come to think of it,

    but with moral shock value. Although that’s not a good comparison, since ”The Onion” probably has more editorial oversight than Medical Hypotheses, the personal fiefdom of one editor for almost 30 years, and now of a second editor for the last six. The decisions, if indeed anything is rejected, are made by one man. You can see the results of one editor “choosing” 50 publications per issue: articles where you don’t even have to read beyond the abstract to find glaring errors or realize the whole thing is a hoax. But who cares about quality when you have quantity?

    For the sake of fairness and balance, here’s my proposal: medical libraries should subscribe to and pay for ”The Onion.” Maybe a couple thousand a year? And “The Onion” should be placed on Pubmed. With the right editor, The Onion could double its publications overnight, get its editorial board members and their collaborators and friends to cite The Onion a few times in everything they write, and encourage self-citation in Onion articles. With the incredible popularity of The Onion, it would outstrip those measly Science and Nature IFs in no time flat! In any case, I guarantee The Onion would be downloaded several hundred times more often even than the similarly entertaining Medical Hypotheses. Sad but true.

  3. I recently had the pleasure (or not?) of reading an article slated to go to press at Medical Hypotheses by JL Kavanau on secondary flightlessness in troodontid and oviraptorid dinosaurs. The article itself doesn’t appear to lend anything new, nor does it even appear to offer any hypotheses (something I thought the journal was targeting its publications to offer). Instead, it appears to be a response towards another recent paper published in the journal Science, repackaging the points of that paper under the influence of having read Greg Paul’s Dinosaurs of the Air while offering little to no actual data in support of its arguments. While I am not an opponent of maniraptoran theropods possibly being secondarily flightless (i.e. flight evolving basally within maniraptorans, and subsequent and possibly multiple losses in different clades-i.e. oviraptorosaurs, troodontids, and dromaeosaurids), Kavanau’s paper does not prop its claims up at all. Boooooring.


  4. I think it is important to have a place where bold hypothesis can be published. Most scientists never have a novel idea in their life and they loathe anything that challenges their axioms. But, their axioms are always overturned with time. The science establishment is an insular and petty place, with most journals promoting the industries that support it. Conflicts of interest and professional pride corrupt the process of novel inquiry. It is crucial to have journals like Medical Hypothesis that expand the dialog. When science is afraid of new ideas, it is time for them to admit defeat. Those scientists who are threatened by Medical Hypotheses are not scientists at all, but industry stooges, protecting their own. They should be ashamed of themselves. To think that they know what is “true” is anathema to the process of science and to the testament of history.

  5. Because data less and poorly written papers are the best way to challenge and overturn existing axioms.

    Shut the fuck up.

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