A virtual takeover

A set of electronic postings on the subject of AIDS on the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) website are making AIDS researchers see red

Published: Wednesday 31 December 2003

-- 'rapid response' on aids British Medical Journal

A set of electronic postings on the subject of aids on the prestigious British Medical Journal (bmj) website are making aids researchers see red. At issue is a steady series of unreviewed articles -- one in six articles in the top 300 if a search is undertaken for 'aids' in all articles written in the bmj for the last two years -- by people who claim that aids is not caused by the hiv virus. The disproportionate prominence of this issue over other aids issues is angering some researchers.

They point out that most of these articles are unreviewed 'Rapid Responses', letters to the editor published within 24 hours, and screened only to exclude libel or breaches of patient confidentiality. Thus David Rasnick, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, usa and a leading aids sceptic, has managed to tote up 46 postings. Researchers complain that the credibility conferred on 'Rapid Responses' by the bmj label may mislead policy-makers and members of the public over the debate. "It looks to the unsuspecting that this is solid stuff," says Simon Wain-Hobson, who studies aids at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

While bmj editor Richard Smith admits that one side of an argument can "lose by attrition" to a more vocal minority, he also cherishes the principle of free speech 'Rapid Responses' stands for. The controversy also brings to the fore a larger conflict the World Wide Web is quite alive to: how unfettered can an open, unmoderated debate be in the virtual public domain? What are the limits, or rules, to engagement? In the bmj's case, there's an added aspect: what about the journal's claim to provide authentic information?

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