Friday, 20 July 2007

Inaugural Editorial

Inaugural editorial
Bruce G. Charlton MD

Medical Hypotheses 2004; 62: 1-2

It is an honour to become editor of Medical Hypotheses, following in the footsteps of its founder David Horrobin – whom I admired as scientist, philosopher and inspirational human being. The journal will continue to pursue the ideals upon which it was founded, and which were expressed in the first issue of the journal (see following article).

In a nutshell, Medical Hypotheses has two distinctive aims: the first is to serve as a forum for theoretical work in biomedicine; the second is to facilitate the publication of potentially ‘revolutionary’ ideas.

The definitive study of science as a social activity is probably David L Hull’s Science as a process (Chicago University Press, 1988). Hull makes clear that the progressive, cumulative potential of science depends absolutely upon the public dissemination of knowledge, as scientists co-operate and compete to build upon (and discredit) each other’s work by testing rival theories against observations of the natural world. But at the time when science was getting off the ground in the 17th century, the public dissemination of scientific knowledge needed to be encouraged and enforced, since scientists ‘naturally’ tended to keep useful information to themselves in order to be able to exploit it commercially (as Galileo tried to do with his invention of the telescope).

To overcome this tendency for secrecy, the familiar modern practices evolved by which an author must publish in order to get credit for a discovery, and in which the first author to publish is (usually) the one that gets the credit. The nature of credit awarded is essentially the esteem of the relevant members of the active scientific community, expressed by their using the scientific discovery, and linking this usage with the name of the discoverer.

So, the process of science has long been associated with individual responsibility for published work. But responsibility implies both credit for achievement and blame for error. On the one hand, science should be published as quickly as possible, in order to gain credit. On the other hand, when work turns out to be sloppy or otherwise erroneous, then the author’s reputation suffers. The fact that it was in the author’s own interest to publish good work meant that peer review was until recent decades a very ‘light touch’ business – being essentially the editorial filtering of incoherent or impenetrable papers, and the exclusion of work outside of the scientific boundaries of a particular journal.

This is very important. In the ‘golden age’ of science (broadly synonymous with ‘academic science’ as John Ziman terms it in Real Science; Cambridge University Press, 2000), the function of the review and editorial process was not to judge the truth or falsity of published work. The truth of science is established (socially, in an emergent fashion) by testing theories and checking data against observations of the natural world – it is testing against the natural world that makes it science.

In golden age/academic science there was minimal kudos awarded for publishing as such – publishing was only significantly valued when what was published was new and useful and stood up to testing by others; otherwise the scientist was merely wasting the reader’s time and the journal’s pages. However, as science became more bureaucratized and evolved towards its current ‘post-academic’ form, then scientists began to be awarded credit just for publishing – even when the work published was old, trivial, or turned-out to be untrue. Publication (as a measure of ‘productivity’) became linked to career progression.

The result was an intense pressure to publish, especially in the most influential journals for which competition was most fierce. Instead of awarding scientific status on the basis of the (long-term) value of published work, there emerged a tendency to award status on the basis of the amount of published work, especially the amount of work published in the most competitive journals. In a nutshell, science became more about successful performance in the peer review process, and less about successful understanding of the natural world.

This shift towards judgment by the opinion of peers rather than real-world evaluations seems destructive to the process of science. It tends to establish science by consensus; and after all peer-consensus is not distinctive to science but is equally characteristic of academic publishing in Theology, English Literature and other clearly not-scientific disciplines.

The problem is that this kind of consensus-approved peer review intrinsically discriminates against the dissemination of revolutionary science. Of course, revolutionary science is (almost by definition) rare, so that most of the time this exclusion is not noticeable. But ideas that are potentially important which nevertheless go against mainstream opinion may be hard to publish. The fact that peers consider ideas probably to be untrue may be of considerable professional significance, but it is clearly not scientifically decisive.

Consensus-approved peer reviewing has other problems. Originally the scientist was responsible for the substantive content of whatever they published. The editor merely enforced a standard scientific form – such as a characteristically objective and precise prose style, and the ‘introduction, methods, results, discussion’ structure of empirical papers. But modern peer review goes beyond this, because authors are frequently required to alter the scientific content of the paper in order to be allowed to proceed with publication. This can easily result in an author publishing work that does not precisely represent their own views. The dilution of authorial responsibility has reached such a point that journals (rather than authors) may be blamed for the publication of erroneous work (on the basis that the modern peer review process is assumed to establish the validity of science and has therefore ‘failed’).

By contrast, Medical Hypotheses regards the author as responsible for their own published work; whether that work turns out to be worthy of praise or blame. As the great musician Hans Keller defined it in Criticism (Faber, 1987) there are two main aspects to the editorial role: choosing and changing – the first being essential and the second ‘phoney’. I see my role as primarily one of choosing the journal contents from among papers submitted, with assistance from the Editorial Advisory Board. This review process will insist upon maximum clarity of expression and standard scientific forms of structure. But we are not in the business of trying to get authors to change the content of papers to suit the editors’ opinions. Of course, traditional referees advice is usually well-meant, and may even be helpful. But there is a slippery slope leading inexorably towards editorially-imposed ‘re-writing’ and some degree of scientific distortion. Since the goodwill and honesty of scientific publication is vital, anything which interferes with an authors’ telling of the ‘truth-as-they-see-it’ should be avoided.

Having said all this, it is in each author’s interest to publish work which is likely to impress the peer group of biomedical scientists in the same field, because it is the peer group who are intellectually-equipped and professionally-motivated to test and use ideas, and such usage is in practice the ultimate arbiter of scientific ‘truth’. A paper which fails to reference previous work in the field and flouts the conventions of scientific publishing makes life much harder for itself – it is less likely to have an impact. Medical Hypotheses is a forum for revolutionary ideas that might be unwelcome in more narrowly specialist journals, but perhaps the best way for out-of-the-ordinary ideas successfully to be disseminated is for them to be expressed in a conventional form.

In conclusion, I look forward to the adventure of editing this journal with an unique niche and role in biomedical science. My intention is to make Medical Hypotheses the journal of first choice for researchers with interesting and potentially important ideas, especially those who insist on retaining authorial responsibility for their published work.