B. Charlton

May Deadline Set for Controversial Journal's Editor

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam


Time is running out for Bruce Charlton, the medical journal editor who got into hot water for publishing a paper by AIDS "denialist" Peter Duesberg. Charlton says he has received a letter from his publisher, Elsevier, saying that he will be fired on 11 May if he does not agree to an overhaul of procedures at Medical Hypotheses, the journal which he has edited since 2003. Cha­­rlton says the move is an attack on academic freedom and amounts to "steamrollering editorial independence."

In response to angry AIDS scientists, Elsevier has already permanently withdrawn the paper, in which Duesberg, a molecular virologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and his co-authors claimed that there is no link between HIV and AIDS and that South-African medical statistics belie the existence of a large AIDS epidemic in that country. The publishing powerhouse had also said it would not renew Charlton's contract at the end of this year.

Now, the company wants Charlton to unconditionally implement five changes at the journal—most importantly, to introduce a form of peer review. Medical Hypotheses has never used reviewers because its founder believed they stifle the introduction of new ideas. The new system would be a little different than at regular journals—reviewers would only judge the "premise, originality, and plausibility" of hypotheses submitted—but that too is unacceptable to Charlton. So is the demand that potentially controversial articles receive especially careful review.

Charlton believes the company has no good reason to fire him, and he may take legal action. "I was sort of a golden boy for Elsevier," he says. "I always got praise from them, I was making them a lot of money, and I received two significant pay rises." (Charlton says he has reduced his working hours at the university by 20% to keep up with the increasing editorial workload.) He claims that Elsevier has violated his contract, which he says stipulates that proposals to change the journal should come from the editor in consultation with the editorial board.

Elsevier spokesperson Tom Reller declines to address these issues specifically but writes in an e-mail that "the steps we've taken have been warranted, and we've followed strict ethical, industry and contractual codes in our dealings with Professor Charlton." Reller blames Charlton for refusing to discuss the future of the journal with the company. "We have sought his input on more than a few occasions; he has not yet chosen to engage in discussion," he says. Charlton responds that he held off on discussions only until 12 February, when 13 members of the Editorial Advisory Board sent Elsevier a letter supporting him.

*This item has been corrected. It originally stated that Charlton held off discussions until 4 February when the Editorial Advisory Board issued a report. Charlton actually waited until 12 February, when members of his board sent Elsevier a letter of support.