Monday, 21 May 2018

Highly Problematic Stance on Fake "Antivaxx" Authorship By the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics


It is a recognised challenge of my research field, bioethics, to include and empower researchers and institutions from low- and midlle-resource settings. Since a few years, the leading journal of Bioethics, runs the side journal Developing World Bioethics to address this issue, and over the past few years a number of journals have appeared, based at institutions outside of the most affluent parts of the world with a natural focus on bioethical issue of relevance to such settings, as well as global health related issues. One of these is the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, that has quickly been rising in the ranks and attracting respect for its consistent work.

However, very recently the IJME has been dragged into potential scandal. First, the editor, Amar Jesani, decided to publish an article by a fake author, claiming fake credentials and affiliations, of an obvious antivaxx junk article of the sort that antivaxxers – just like tobacco-industry sponsored scientists used to do regarding the dangers of smoking – are constantly trying to peddle to various journals to create an image of "scientific controversy" around the use of vaccines to fight infectious disease and build public health. The fakes were all very easy to detect, and already the fact that the "author" was not using the email-domain of, and has no profile at the webpages of, the institution (Karolinska Institutet) to which he claimed affiliation should have rung immediate alarm-bells. But then, when this is pointed out, and the journal is alerted to this research fraud, the editor Amar Jesani decides not to retract the article! Instead, the editor appears to have decided to trust the author's obviously bogus explanations for his (?) fraud, and to attempt to counter a, to my mind, quite sound statement on the matter from the Karolinska Institutet president, Ole-Petter Ottersen.

The bogus explanations and Jesani's expression of sympathy with them, and Ottersen's stringent response, is to be found here. This very surprising and ill-conceived action of Jesani is potentially extremely damaging for the IJME, and in effect risks to soil the reputation of the entire field of bioethics. The fake author's attempt at justifying the fraud is that he/she has to be anonymous to protect him-/herself from persecution for unpopular views. This, of course, is not even worth the scrap of paper it was scribbled on. The real role of the fraud is to block any investigation into conflicts of interests (the antivaxx movement is nowadays a flourishing industry of quackery), other activities of the author that would undermine confidence in the article's content, and the fact the author lied to the editor, and offered the explanation only in retrospect when the scam had been uncovered should, of course, mean that the editor should have no trust in what the author is claiming. This is a proven fraudster, and should be treated as such. Just as authors lying about ethics approval should have their papers taken out, authors who lie about other things of relevance to the evaluation and assessment of the research have their papers removed. As Ottersen says in his second blog post: an editor of an ethics journal should know this. The editorial board of the journal should immediately and strongly recommend its editor, who has obviously let his personal prestige lead him astray in this matter, to revise his position and act according to the high publication ethical standards expected of a bioethics journal that aspires to be well regarded.

Let me, lastly, comment on the possible need for author anonymity for research articles. The afterconstructed reason brough forward by the fake author and that Jesani surprisingly buys, is the idea that is often practices within news reporting. Where, eg., a newspaper may protect sources by keeping them confidential. However, that also means that whatever story is built on this, needs to present suffient additional public evidence, that is open for scrutiny, in order to compensate for the loss of control following source anonymity. This has not taken place in the case of the fraudulent article. Also, the whole spinn about author/source confidentiality is obviously a lie in the present case: Had the author had any such plan, he/she would have honestly and openly contacted the IJME editor about it, and Jesani could have pondered - bringing in the editorial board - the issue. Had they decided to approve such a request, this would have brought with it extraordinarily strong obligations to check the author credibility, CoI, etc. This is not what occurred, however. What occurred is that a con-man defrauded the journal, and the journal editor then decides, against any common sense, to trust said con-man. Unbelievable!

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