Thursday, 31 March 2011

David Horrobin's letter handing-over Medical Hypotheses editorship


E-mail from David Horrobin to me, dated 3 March 2003.

It was the letter in which he offered me the editorship of Medical Hypotheses.

This was posted on my Miscellany blog last year - but I am copying it here for the record.


Dear Bruce,

Although I am slowly recovering from the latest recurrence of my mantle cell lymphoma, I have to be realistic and accept the probability that I have only a year or so to live. Rather than leave everything to the last minute, I would rather put things in order now.

[Note: in fact David had less time than he hoped, and he died just a few weeks later on 1 April 2003. We had a chance to speak a couple more times on the telephone - once while he was actually having chemotherapy - but that was all.]

I am therefore writing to ask whether you would be willing to take over as Editor-in-Chief of Medical Hypotheses? Frankly you are the only person I really trust to take it over and run it in an open-minded fashion.


The primary criteria for acceptance are very different from the usual journals. In essence what I look for are answers to two questions only: Is there some biological plausibility to what the author is saying? Is the paper readable? We are NOT looking at whether or not the paper is true but merely at whether it is interesting.

I now make most of the editorial judgments myself unless I am really puzzled as to whether the paper is a lot of nonsense. I have found most referees far more trouble than they are worth: they are so used to standard refereeing which is usually aimed at trying to determine whether or not a paper is true that they are incapable of suspending judgment and end up being inappropriately hypercritical.

In the early days I used to spend a lot of time editing and rewriting papers which were poorly written or where the English was inadequate. However, I am now quite ruthless about not doing that which has greatly reduced the editorial burden. I simply return papers which are poorly written, suggesting that they are rewritten in conjunction with someone whose native language is English. If that does not produce a result then the paper is simply rejected.

I do very much hope that you will be willing to take up this proposal. Overall Medical Hypotheses is a lot of fun and it gives one access to a very wide range of interesting medical science. Since I started the journal in Newcastle in the 1970s there is an appropriateness in the possibility of it returning there.

Very best wishes, David Horrobin.


Saturday, 12 February 2011

Leigh Van Valen's letter of support for Medical Hypotheses


The late, and in my opinion almost-great, Leigh Van Valen was one of only a handful of eminent scientists who publicly supported the principles of Medical Hypotheses - indeed it was apparently one of the last things he did before dying a few months later:

I would like to preserve his comment from the online edition of Nature:


A more conspicuous statement in such a journal (perhaps with each paper) that it doesn't use peer review should be adequate warning for those who can't evaluate a paper themselves. For those who can, there are sometimes gems among the (often unintentionally humorous) matrix.

Genuine conceptual originality is by definition outside the accepted way of looking at things. It often has rough edges that can be easily refuted, thereby making its core seem suspect. And, indeed, most conceptual deviants are justifiably discarded.

Originality at the conceptual level can come from empirical discoveries. However, it can also come from looking at the world in a different way.

It's commonly recognized in the metascientific literature that conceptual originality is inversely related to publishability. As someone who has made some conceptually original contributions, I've noticed the same phenomenon myself.

More specifically, there are indeed occasional gems in Medical Hypotheses that would be difficult to publish elsewhere.

Medical Hypotheses does have mandatory publication charges, which discriminate against those without such money wherever such charges occur. Otherwise, though, I wish the journal well and hope that it will survive its current crisis.

2010-03-19 12:04:12

Posted by: leigh van valen


Note: "there are indeed occasional gems in Medical Hypotheses that would be difficult to publish elsewhere" - that satisfies me as an obituary for MeHy.

In fact, contrary to what LVV said, the mandatory publication charges for Medical Hypotheses had been abolished about a year before this letter, by Elsevier. The subsequent Medical Hypotheses Affair, and this action taken by the publishers (without consulting me), was therefore *in part* probably an unfortunate side effect of the resulting large (albeit self-inflicted)  loss of income from the journal - which went at a stroke from being very profitable to only mildly so. 

The editorial review system (and that the journal was not peer reviewed) was very prominently noted on the title page of the journal, which included exerpts from and a link to an essay by me describing the rationale. A note on each paper could easily have been added, if the publisher had wanted to preserve the journal's true nature: but they wanted (and got) peer review and a mainstream, non-controversial journal - an anti-Medical Hypotheses.

Water under the bridge...

Van Valen had accepted my first evolutionary paper for publication in his own journal - years before this: