Orac provides a thoughtful dissection of some of the problems with MH and of the impact of publishing some of what was published in that venue in recent years. I doubt I could do much better than that in terms of providing background and context to the 'regime change' underway at MH. That said, I figured I'd throw out my two cents about this, given two things: 1) I've recently published something in MH; 2) what it means for the public understanding of scientific arguments; and 3) Elsevier's role in all this.
First, two years ago, a short commentary of mine was published in MH (Riel-Salvatore 2008), I hasten to add in response to a paper they had published, which I felt was very poorly argued and completely unsupported by the available data (Underdown 2008). To MH's credit, the process of publishing my reply was very smooth, transparent and, importantly, very quick. My comment was based on a post I first had up on AVRPI, a process I chronicled in detail before, and it took all of three months from the blog-to-published-comment process to unfold, which I was personally quite happy about. Likewise, I have to say that my impression throughout this process was that MH was quite open to even very 'vigorous' criticism of papers it published. It was also nice that you didn't have to pay to publish a comment, whereas you have to pay 'page fees' to publish an actual paper in MH (itself a questionable practice, especially if it doesn't result in open access to the paper in question, but that's another post for another time).
That said, there was a good reason why I felt the need to publish that comment, even though, as a non-peer reviewed piece on a non-peer reviewed piece, it was essentially a double net loss to my research productivity, especially since I had no personal stake in this, i.e, it didn't portray any of my own work negatively. That reason was the amount of play the original paper had received in the popular press. And this, fundamentally, is the issue I have with journals like MH. To the public at large, reading that a 'study' or a 'new paper' has been published in a 'journal' (especially if it is by someone described as a professor or researcher affiliated with a bona fide university), implies that it is a serious contribution to the literature on given debates. In this case, the 'mad Neanderthal' meme as a credible explanation for their disappearance went full-steam ahead, with no real detractors on the record. I suspect that this acceptance was due in no small part to the fact that it had been published in a 'journal', never mind the facts that authors basically need to pay to have their research published in MH, with no resulting public access, and the that, contrarily to most research on Neanderthals that makes its way to the popular press, this paper was not critically evaluated by peers of the author. This is not to say that non-peer reviewed publications don't have their own raison d'être, but rather that they need to be explicitly recognized as such, especially before results published in such sources get fed to the media.
As it is, to the non-specialist, MH certainly has the appearance of a peer-reviewed journal. For one thing, it's a 'journal.' For another, it's published by Elsevier, which touts itself as "the world’s leading publisher of science and health information" (from their website). With such backing, why wouldn't someone assume that MH is a reputable source? It's even got 'medical' right there in the title! Hell, I hadn't heard of MH before reading Underdown's paper, and my first reaction upon seeing it was an Elsevier pub certainly was that it was most likely a peer-reviewed journal. Plus, as this post's inclusion on Research Blogging shows, it even has a doi and everything, making the contents of MH appear as legitimate peer-reviewed publications, as does their inclusion in scientific databases like Web of Science. This is not to exculpate people who don't do their homework, but MH certainly has all the outside appearance of a peer-reviewed publication.
This leads to the third point, namely the business practices of Elsevier, who bought MH in 2002 (the journal was created in 1975). I think an important question to ask is why Elsevier bothered to acquire MH in the first place? Given its current double-take on MH's worth as a scientific publication, it kind of makes one wonder whether the goal of dominating as much of the scientific publishing market as possible made the higher-ups at Elsevier ignore the nature of that journal in their continuing efforts to take over an increasing share of the publishing world, no matter what the costs... I very much doubt that they had as their ultimate goal to make MH into a full-blown peer-reviewed publication (if so, why wait 8 years?), so what's the story here? I think we may be witnessing an instance of Elsevier's business model backfiring, and though they're clearly trying to shift the fall-out solely on MH, I think it ultimately highlights the hypocrisy that grows from the tensions between the mission of scientific publication and the business realities faced by publishing conglomerates within which individuals become increasingly faceless entities conceived more as profit-making devices than conduits for the wide and timely dissemination of scientific knowledge. I think this is all the more grating given that scientists are essentially forced to give away their work to be published in the 'right' Elsevier journals - and those of other large publishing companies - (even if in many cases their reputation far precedes their incorporation by Elsevier) for purposes of getting tenure, professional prestige, etc.
In any case, my point here is not to say that MH is all sorts of awesome and that Elsevier isn't. In fact, my only involvement with MH came as a reaction to a paper that I thought was of pretty low academic quality (which echoes some of the problems that precipitated the current fiasco) and which they nonetheless elected to publish, even though it echoed another short paper written almost 35 years prior (
Riel-Salvatore J (2008). Mad Neanderthal disease? Some comments on "A potential role for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction". Medical hypotheses, 71 (3), 473-4 PMID: 18524493
UNDERDOWN, S. (2008). A potential role for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction Medical Hypotheses, 71 (1), 4-7 DOI: 10.1016/j.mehy.2007.12.014