Saturday, 15 September 2012

Something's Cookin' at AJOB and (Now Updated)

Updates added after the original post can be found at the bottom marked by bold text.

Yep, yep - there is definitely something going on - less clear, however, what it is and less clear how it connects to the long string of recent events around the American Journal of Bioethics and the important work of restoring confidence in the journal's integrity.

First, emails have this week been swishing around the bioethics scholarly community, quoting an alleged letter from Summer Johnson McGee announcing her resignation as editor in chief of the American Journal of Bioethics, as well as stepping out of the connected website business In both instances effective from September 14.

Second, William Heisel posted about and commented on this news and how it was viewed by remaining editor in chief, David Magnus on his blog at Reporting on Health, where he also quoted the above mentioned letter. The spirit of the post was that, possibly, perhaps as an add-on to the former troubles, Johnson McGee's unfortunate apparent connection to a number of recently announced and rather grave conflict of interest declaration problems at AJOB linked to an ongoing federal investigation of research corruption with pharma money at the former academic home of both AJOB, and Johnson McGee may have become too much to handle.


Heisel's post has now been blocked for access since a few days (the link above is to a web-cache of the original page), and Johnson McGee is still listed as editor in chief at the journal website, where the press release announcing her recent appointment is also still available. Nothing is announced at, except that the information about Summer Johnson McGee's ownership of the website through a company called Bioethics Internet Group that I quoted in my latest post on this topic has now been taken out (and someone has seen to it that former versions of pages are not being cached). No word either in the AJOB Facebook group.

On twitter, people are asking Heisel about what's going on with no response so far – his account is silent since September 11, when he posted info about an update to the mentioned blog post. I was in contact with him via email the day before yesterday, but he did only want to talk on the phone about this matter and since we are 9 hours apart timezone-wise, this has not yet been possible to arrange. Or he has decided it wise not to communicate on the matter at this point.

Given the past occurrences of lawsuit threats in response to blog posts or articles connecting to AJOB and the businesses of its (now former) editorial management (see my last post on AJOB for more on that), it's not without that one is getting a bit worried. At the same time, if it really is true that Summer Johnson McGee is stepping down in the way indicated by all the rumors and signs, doing it in a cloud of civil law action would hardly make the whole thing more graceful, so I cross my fingers for her sake as well as Heisel's.

Hopefully, not least for AJOB's sake, all of these question marks will be straightened out soon. But, let's play with the thought that the initial rumor is true – what would that imply for AJOB? This, to my mind, depends on two things. First, Johnson McGee's actual connection to the recent round of problems around conflict of interest declarations and the linked alleged pharma corrupted research on pain medication. If this alleged link is weak or non-existent, Johnson McGee stepping down would not seem to help restoring confidence in AJOB through that route. Second, the point that I raised in my latest post on this topic about the problem of having an editor in chief that is directly financially dependent on what pieces are published in AJOB, through how that affects traffic and advertisement revenue. This aspect of AJOB integrity is not fixed by Johnson McGee stepping down, since it remains to be known how the ownership of looks from September 15, and how will be connected to the AJOB operation in the future. Transparency on these points is absolutely crucial for AJOB's reputation, and something should ideally be posted about this in the about section at and/or the journal website at the publisher as soon as possible.

Update, September 15, 2012:
Just now, when checking for news, I noticed that Summer Johnson McGee's name is off the editor-in-chief listing for AJOB in the about section for the journal at However, she is still listed at the actual journal homepage of the publisher Taylor and Francis.

The ownership of and its role in the AJOB operation is still undeclared. In fact, the about section for only speaks about AJOB, as if that is equivalent to

I can also report that the original web-cache link to Heisel's blog post was killed by Google (possibly on the request by someone of the involved parties), and has now been replaced by another service.


  1. Christian,

    I'm not sure why the skepticism about Summer's resignation being real? I have the letter if you want it. If so, please contact me. I can't find your email address on line.

    I personally found it -- let's call it interesting? -- to see confirmation that such AJOB leadership messages go to Robert Nelson at his address.

    Some background given in the hotlink for my name attached to this comment.

    Alice Dreger @ Northwestern

    1. Alice,
      thanks for the comment and the link to your PT post. I wish you guys luck with the new push, but I wonder about your chances with LBM still on both the e. board and the coi board...

      I did receive a copy of an email via a common friend of ours that quotes the letter of SJM. If you have the actual letter, so it can be forwarded, I am glad to see it. I will contact you via email on that.

      During my time as a sort of outside commentator to all of these quirky things in and around AJOB the last few years I have come to be very aware of a number of strong undertexts and/or agendas connected to various personal relations between people on the US bioethics circuit, that I myself have limited understsnding of and no interest of being a part of. For that reason I have become increasingly wary of trusting stuff said on this topic, unless corroborated. So the email I received was fine as long as Heisel's post was up, but when that was taken down and it became obvious that he did not want to comment on why, my corroboration became weaker. That was the reason for my hesitation.

    2. Christian,

      Your care makes a lot of sense and I respect it.

      As for the AJOB board, I just want to make sure they understand what they've been asked, so that we can indicate, in our representations of their actions, that they knew what they were doing when they did it. Because their decisions knock the socks off of everyone "outside" who see these crazy rulings. Maybe this will change with the McGees gone, but as you note, the McGoo is still around.

      One wonders if the FDA understands what Nelson has been up to in all this. We shall see.

      Anyway, I've now sent you Summer's resignation by email (thanks for being in touch) and you can post that.


  2. Nothing to say...yet I posted...