Unconventional Journals: Protect Nonconformists

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Science  23 Apr 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5977, pp. 427
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5977.427-b

Take the Poll

The non–peer-reviewed journal Medical Hypotheses considers “radical, speculative and non-mainstream scientific ideas.” Recently, the journal has drawn fire for publishing papers that some say are detrimental to health care efforts (see Letter by G. N. Vyas); others feel that the journal is a “refreshing source of independent thinking” (see this Letter). The future of Medical Hypotheses is now unclear. What do you think?

In general, do the benefits of a journal such as Medical Hypotheses outweigh the risks? Take the poll at www.sciencemag.org/extra/polls/20100423-1.dtl.

I was dismayed to learn that Elsevier intends to remove Bruce Charlton as editor-in-chief of the journal Medical Hypotheses and to convert the journal to peer-review format (“Elsevier to editor: Change controversial journal or resign,” M. Enserink, 12 March, p. 1316). I find Medical Hypotheses to be a refreshing source of independent thinking in a sphere of scientific publishing that is becoming increasingly conformist, repetitive, and sometimes outright boring.

The current controversy around Medical Hypotheses—anger over papers claiming that HIV does not cause AIDS—highlights a major threat to the future of independent scientific thinking. The scientific community is undergoing continual division into exclusive clubs whose members are hostile to outsiders and their ideas. Nonconformists find it increasingly difficult to receive funding, secure tenure, and publish their hypotheses and results. This is particularly true in medical and biomedical research.

Underlying this trend is the unfortunate fact that increasing specialization has led many scientists to dedicate their entire careers to very narrow lines of research. These scientists may see their careers crumble should the theoretical framework underlying their research become unstable. Consequently, they have strong incentives to keep paradigm-shifting ideas away from the limelight. Medical Hypotheses was established to give an outlet to these potentially revolutionary ideas.

The hysteria surrounding the controversial HIV paper is particularly alarming, and some of the measures suggested, such as canceling Medical Hypotheses subscriptions and removing it from the MEDLINE database, are outright draconian. Those who claim to be scientists should use facts and reason, not censorship, to refute opposing views. This resort to censorship underscores the indispensable role of Medical Hypotheses as an outlet for new and challenging thoughts.

Forcing Medical Hypotheses to submit to peer reviews would turn it into yet another establishment journal, thus depriving it of its essence and uniqueness. It might as well be renamed Mundane Hypotheses.

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