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New Medical Hypotheses Editor Promises Not to Stir Up Controversy

Elsevier yesterday announced that it has appointed biomedical scientist Mehar Manku as editor-in-chief of the journal Medical Hypotheses, whose penchant for publishing provocative papers has divided the science community. He succeeds Bruce Charlton, who was fired last month after he published a paper that denied the link between HIV and AIDS and resisted Elsevier's demands to institute a peer review process at the journal.

Manku is a scientist at Amarin Corp., a company focusing on new treatments for cardiovascular disease. He is a former student and colleague of David Horrobin, the eccentric scientist and entrepreneur who founded Medical Hypotheses in 1975. Manku has been on the journal's Editorial Advisory Board since 2004; he is also editor in chief of Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, another Elsevier journal. ScienceInsider talked to Manku by phone today; questions and answers were edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: How do you feel about the affair that led Elsevier to fire your predecessor?
I would like to stay clear of that myself. I don't want to get involved in what happened in the past.

Q: Would you have published the AIDS paper by Peter Duesberg that started the affair?
No, I would not have published it, because I know the sensitivity of the issue. As an editor, you have a major responsibility to make sure you are not trying to stir up controversy by accepting a paper which then causes all sort of problems.

Q: Does that mean you will you stay clear of certain topics, such as HIV?
No, I won't say that I will never publish anything about HIV, or any other subject. That's not the idea. The idea is to be careful not to get into controversial subjects. That can cause problems with not only the publisher but also with some very good researchers who work very hard to look at a disease in a very serious manner.

Q: And you will implement a system of peer review?
Yes—but it's not a classical peer review system. I call it a Medical Hypotheses custom-made review system. It's in accordance with the aims and scope of the journal, which is to publish radical new ideas.

Q: What does that mean in practice?
I want to bring in a group of medically qualified reviewers with expertise in different areas. Then let's suppose you submit a paper which has some very critical ideas about the treatment of a certain type of disease. I will ask a reviewer who has expertise in that field to comment on the medical and scientific basis of the hypothesis. I want to ensure that the hypotheses generated are meaningful and not controversial, that they won't cause a public outcry. But the reviewers will be aware that this is not The New England Journal of Medicine, BMJ, or so on; it's a journal that will publish papers that would not get accepted elsewhere. As an editor, I will still have the final say, but I want to get more scientists involved.

Q: And what if a paper is potentially very controversial?
My answer is: I would look at it very carefully and I would get a second or third reviewer involved.

Q: You knew the late David Horrobin, the founding editor of Medical Hypotheses, well?
I knew him for almost 33 years. I was one of his first Ph.D. students when he was a professor in Kenya; I finished my Ph.D. at the University of Newcastle, where he was a reader in physiology at the time. When he set up a new lab in Montreal, I joined him as a postdoc. So I was there when he launched the journal.

Horrobin was a brilliant man, a man of many great ideas, which he found very difficult to publish in classical medical journals. Because he was quite entrepreneurial, he decided to establish one himself.

Q: But wasn't the whole point of Medical Hypotheses that Horrobin believed that peer review stifles new, innovative ideas? By introducing a peer-review system, are you still acting in his spirit?
I think I am, because it's not classical peer review. That's why in the press release, we quoted what Horrobin said about the goal of Medical Hypotheses in the very first issue. I still completely concur with him, and I'm not going away from what he set up the journal for. All I'm saying is, I'm going to handle the editorial system in a different way.

Q: Would you still publish the weird, wacky papers that Medical Hypotheses is famous for—such as the one about the nature of navel fluff ?

M.M.: [Laughs] That kind of paper ... I'll make the decision when I see one. I will continue to publish crazy ideas, but they have to have scientific merit.