Hypotheses in the Life Sciences

Hypotheses in the Life Sciences

Ideas and speculations

In 2008 I became editor of the journal Bioscience Hypotheses, a spin-out of the journal Medical Hypotheses. The journal was published by Elsevier, and did very well, establishing a name for itself and getting some good papers (and, of course, some not very good ones, but such is science). I also got the chance to editorialize about science, innovation and publishing; the editorials are available here. Then in 2009 a fierce argument between the editor of Medical Hypotheses and Elsevier spilled over and Bioscience Hypotheses was closed down.

I thought the idea behind Bioscience Hypotheses was great. We published hypotheses – ideas that had been worked out carefully on paper, made predictions that could be tested, and provided a better explanation for some aspect of biology than had been available before. So I started a new journal called Hypotheses in the Life Sciences, published by Buckingham University Press. But BUP is a minnow compared to Elsevier’s whale, and we struggled to attract any papers at all, let alone good ones. In 2014 we threw in the towel. Officially the torch of hypothesis publishing was continued at MDPI’s Life as a new section of the journal, but in reality this marked the demise of a great idea.

Why did it not work? As a science venture, the problem is quality, from two angles.

Firstly, peer review. The normal process to get a scientific paper published is to send the draft out to other scientists to check (‘referee’) before the publisher agrees to publish it. These are people who are experts, having nothing to do with the research in the paper, and (usually) comment anonymously. This means the publisher does not have to be a technical expert in the paper’s field, they can rely on the expertise of people who are really expert. But for a new idea, who is expert? The established Big Names in the field tend to be conservative when it comes to upstarts saying that they have got it all wrong. So how do you get hypothesis papers peer reviewed? I tried to publish by largely skipping that step, and the scientific community did not think much of that.

Secondly, authors. If you are a Big Name scientist and have a great idea, you do not write a paper about it. You put one of your PhD students on to testing it, and when you have enough data you publish a paper that says “I had this great idea, and I was right, see, here is the data”. So only outsiders wanted to publish a paper that just said “Here is an idea”. And about two thirds of their ideas were, let’s be honest, absolute rubbish. This makes it hard for me, the editor (I ended up writing this paper on how to write hypotheses papers, just because I was so sick of reading bad ones). But it also means that other scientists tend to regard all hypotheses papers as useless.

Bioscience Hypotheses proved that it can be done. I think the idea is worth bringing back. I do not have the time. Do you?