Medical Hypotheses Editor Out; Editorial Advisers to Quit As Well

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

Bruce Charlton, the editor of the controversial journal Medical Hypotheses, was fired last week by publisher Elsevier for refusing to overhaul the review procedures at the journal. Now, a majority of the 19-member Editorial Advisory Board seems set to quit as well, says William Bains, one of Charlton's staunchest defenders and a member of the board. Elsevier has started a search for a replacement editor. It will also go ahead with the implementation of a system of peer review, which the journal has never had.

Charlton got in trouble after publishing a controversial paper by Peter Duesberg, the University of California, Berkeley, virologist who challenges the idea that AIDS is caused by the human immunideficiency virus. After a storm of criticism from AIDS scientists and activists, Elsevier permanently expunged the paper from the medical literature, along with an Italian paper on HIV that had also drawn fire. The publisher also gave Charlton an ultimatum: agree to start implementing peer review by 11 May, or resign. Charlton did neither, and, he says, last week, while on vacation, he received a letter terminating his contract.

In response, three members of the Editorial Advisory Board have already announced their decision to step down, says Bains—a researcher and biotech entrepreneur who's currently a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—and three others have said they will do so. Bains, who has coordinated the board's response so far, says he will resign as well and expects most of the remaining members to quit, saying the journal will become a "travesty." (Thirteen of the 19 members signed a letter to Elsevier in February urging the company to reverse its decisions.)

Elsevier spokesperson Tom Reller says the exodus isn't entirely unexpected. In a recent letter to board members, the company had indicated that it would go through with the policy changes and had asked those who disagreed to "do the right thing"--that is, step down.

Charlton says he has no regrets about publishing the paper. "Duesberg is obviously a competent scientist, he is obviously the victim of an orchestrated campaign of intimidation and exclusion, and I interpret his sacrifice of status to principle as prima facie evidence of his sincerity," he wrote last week in an article in the Times Higher Education that also listed some of the most influential pieces he published. "If I had rejected this paper for fear of the consequences, I would have been betraying the basic ethos of the journal."

Medical Hypotheses has been published for 35 years, but Charlton was only its second editor; he took over in 2003, hand-picked by founding editor David Horrobin, an eccentric scientist and entrepreneur who started the journal because he strongly believed that peer review stands in the way of innovation and creativity in science. A Medical Hypotheses that does practice peer review can only be an "impostor," says Charlton. Or, as he put it on his blog last week: "Aside from a few issues still in the pipeline, the real Medical Hypotheses is now dead: killed by Elsevier 11 May 2010. RIP."