Thursday, 16 February 2012

Confidence Lost: The McGee's, Celltex and the American Journal of Bioethics

The past week or so, a new controversy related to the vastly successful journal The American Journal of Bioethics and its management has been a growing buzz in my field of research speciality. I have reported before about such a controversy (here, here and here), which in that case rather quickly deteriorated into a storm of more and more personal accusations between what at the time looked to me as a bunch of rather overinflated egos, of less and less interest from a bioethics point of view. There was also a very strange former questioning of AJOB's fine impact factor, which I will not even link to here, since it was obviously based on lies about it being based on high degree of internal citations. In fact, AJOB has less degrees of internal citations than most other ethics journals tracked by Thomson Reuter. The journal AJOB is a success, and it is a real success especially in terms of making bioethics publication have a real impact on medicine and medical science – hence the fine citation record, which anyone can use their university's Web of Science subscription to check. 'Nuff said on that.

This latest scandal, however, seems to me to be more of a real deal. This since there are a number of principal matters of publication ethics and bioethics implied, rather than just controversy over singular editorial policy decisions and insubstantiated slander. The matters are:

1. Glenn McGee's handling of his shift from editor in chief of AJOB to President of Ethics and Strategic Initiatives of the private stem cell business CellTex. The verdict has to be: not very nicely done at all. See: Leigh Turner's blog for more.

2. The attempt to resolve the obvious conflict of interest created by that shift by appointing McGee's wife, Summer Johnson McGee as the new EIC and for Glenn McGee to keep some managerial (rather than just ceremonial in terms of founder, full stop) ties to AJOB. See the previous link and this one for more. The vested interests of Glenn McGee in terms of his financial ties to CellTex cannot, in my view, be separated from those of Summer Johnson McGee for the very reason that they are married and thereby under default arrangement share private economic interests and resources.

3. The issue of the ethics of a bioethics scholar to assist a firm that offers non-FDA approved stem cell therapies in a manner that very much resembles the activities of the Burzynski clinic that I have been posting about. Read more about this here.

4. The implied result of having Glenn McGee more or less indirectly in a position of power in relation to an FDA-connected editor of a journal in the AJOB family, where publications may influence whether or not CellTex products will eventually receive FDA clearance. (see previous links).

I personally like AJOB and its special editorial idea very much and I also have the highest regard for its contribution to the positioning of bioethics as a research speciality, but the combination of the above four matters  taken together cannot but leave an ugly stain on its record of credibility. By themselves, they also each stain the credibility of both Glenn McGee and Summer Johnson McGee as bioethics scholars. By implication, this taints also other people involved in the managerial and editorial operation around AJOB. But the root of all this is the ruined credibility of Glenn McGee as bioethics scholar.

Simply put, Glenn: how can I from this day know what master you speak for when you make decisions, assessments, arguments, and so on? As a bioethics colleague: why isn't your first action re. CellTex the obvious one of refusing to be affiliated with it before they either close down their questionable operations or obtain proper approval for their activities?? None of the answers to the latter question that I can imagine inspire confidence, I'm afraid. In light of this, how could you ever imagine that the moves made regarding the management of AJOB would get the journal off the hook in terms of conflicts of interests and reduced credibility. AJOB is your child, I can see that, and I can also see that you care very much for this child of yours to do well in your absense. However, the path entered by the decisions made in recent times is not promoting that end, quite the opposite. 


  1. I don't know the situation, and am an economist, but the question to Mr. McGee ought not to be why he is affiliated with an organization which does questionable activity X, since he might well think X is okay.

    Rather, the real problem is that if he is editor he will be influencing publications that affect the profits of his new employer. That is a problem whether his new employer behaves well or not.

  2. Eric, your're quite right, slippy pen on that one. So, what do you say about the case of having spouse of someone that on this basis is unsuitable for editorial authority to sit in as e-i-c in his/her place?