Thursday 23 April 2020

Editing Medical Hypotheses

I edited the journal Medical Hypotheses from 2003 to 2010. It strikes me that I never set-down an account of what I actually did in this job - which has now disappeared from the world. So here it is:

I say the job has 'disappeared', because MeHy was, apparently, the very last significant journal Not to be peer reviewed (although all old journals implicitly had that form, in the golden era of science); and was founded on that basis by the original editor David Horrobin in order to encourage theoretical thinking in general and non-mainstream/ anti-establishment ideas in particular.

What this meant in practice was that I would review all the papers submitted, and decide which to include. My philosophy was that an editor should be a 'chooser' not a 'changer' - because the author should be wholly responsible for what was published under his name.

The only modification I would routinely advise was to rewrite the 'Abstract' or summary to be a microcosm of the paper, and to use near to a maximum of 400 words  - because I regard this as the most important part of the paper; and because only the Abstract is freely and widely distributed (even to those without a subscription to the journal) by the major indexing services (such as PubMed, or Google Scholar).

In cases of doubt, and in line with the journal's founding principles, I would give the author 'the benefit of the doubt' - on the basis that if a paper made me think, it was serving a valuable function. As back-stop; I also had an editorial board, upon whom I could call for a second opinion, in cases of uncertainty - which did not happen often - maybe once a month?

But mostly I relied upon my scientific-medical intuitions, honed by an unusually broad experience and a lot of thinking and reading on such matters. This meant that I could work very quickly, compared with a conventional 'peer reviewed' journal - and the average time lapse to a decision was about three days (instead of the usual three months or more).

When I started editing, founder David Horrobin had been terminally ill for a couple of years, and the journal was at rather a low ebb, with a backlog of papers, and a modest and still-falling Impact Factor of about 0.9 (the IF for 2004 would be approx. total citations to the journal for 2002 and 2003 divided by the number of papers - so 0.9 is just under one citation per paper).

The journal began with about 100 pages, and I rejected about half of submitted papers. As the years went by, the journal began to attract more and better submissions; and I ended by rejecting two-thirds of submitted papers, despite increasing the length of the journal to about 150 pages.

The Impact Factor peaked for the last two years of my tenure (2009-10) at about 1.6 citations per paper - which was comfortably in the top half of medical journals - so I managed to increase indices of quality, as well as quantity (depite the fact I was deliberately choosing non-mainstream stuff). For example, there were a thousand downloads of papers per day - which was the same as a mainstream successful specialist journal - such as the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

When I began editing MeHy, great bundles of manuscript papers would be posted to me about once a week; and I would e-mail my decisions to a secretary near Oxford. I would compile each issue in contact with the production group in Exeter. After a few years, the whole process was moved online - and I used to log-in and read the submitted papers on screen; as soon as they had been inputted.

So, by 2010 I was getting approximately three submissions to decide-upon each day. As I said, I would averagely accept one of these (although these numbers are averages - in real life, the daily variation in submissions and acceptances was considerable).

The whole process was very quick and efficient, and the results were 'objectively' above average - using the standard scientometric data - when compared with the much slower, more expensive and more complex methods of all other journals. Also, I made a lot of money for the publishers! - and received a good (performance related) salary of 30K pounds - which was considerably more than half of my then university salary.

Naturally, it could not continue - and such a journal is now impossible, unneccessary and (since the further corruption of science) serves no valid purpose; but it was fun while it lasted.

And the experience confirmed what I knew already from studying the history of (real) science: the fraud that is 'peer review' and the sham that is academic publishing... which was, of course, an important reason why the last editorially-reviewed journal could not be allowed to continue!

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