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.