Thursday, 16 February 2012

John Lantos resigns from the AJOB editorial board

As a direct result of the affair with regard to the American Journal of Bioethics that I discussed in my former post, John Lantos, Director of the Children's Mercy Bioethics Center and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, as well as Fellow of Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago, to which he belonged for over 20 years, just announced his resignation from the editorial board of AJOB via a post in the closed Facebook group Bioethics International. I've contacted John and he has given me permission to quote this post here, which I will do without further comment:

After thinking about AJOB since the story broke, here's where I stand:

As a long time supporter and admirer of the American Journal of Bioethics, a former member of the Editorial Board, and a friend of both current and former editors, it pains me to see what has happened. AJOB has been a great journal and I have been, until now, proud to be on its Editorial Board. But recent events make it clear that the journal has lost credibility in ways that tarnish not just the names of people associated with it but also the reputation of the entire field of bioethics.

To me, the key issues are not the ones of procedure that have gotten so much attention. Instead, they are issues of substance. They raise questions about the judgment of the editors and, more importantly, about the goals of the publisher. If, as we’ve been told, Taylor and Francis really asked Glenn McGee to stay on as Editor once he’d taken a job at Celltex, and if they really believed that the resulting conflicts-of-interest were manageable, one must wonder about both their judgment and their mission. Imagine that the Editor of the New England Journal took a job as Vice President at Merck, and the Mass Medical Society asked him to stay on as Editor, opining that the conflicts of interest would be manageable. One might rightly wonder, “What are these people smoking?”

An academic journal in any field, and especially in a field as value-laden as bioethics, must earn the trust of readers and writers alike. Authors need to know that reviews will be fair. Readers need to know that suggested revisions are not politically or financially motivated. The current arrangements offer no such assurance. We want to know what is really going on – and what will go on – and who will be making decisions -- when the journal decides what to publish on issues ranging from research ethics, stem cell controversies, conflicts of interest, relationships between industry and academia, innovative therapy, FDA regulation, patient deaths in clinical trials, research standards in other countries, cozy relationships between biotech companies and state governments, and a host of other issues that have direct financial implications for the new editor-in-chief and the ongoing “founding editor.” AJOB’s current policy for dealing with such conflicts is that editors “…will recuse themselves from any involvement in decisions where they have a financial or other conflicting interest.” In other words, “Shut up and trust us.” I am afraid I have lost trust.

I have, sadly, resigned from the AJOB Editorial Board. As long as the current leadership structure is in place, I will no longer submit papers to AJOB. I have withdrawn a paper that was in press and due out in March. I will discourage my colleagues from submitting papers to AJOB. I will not cite papers published in AJOB. In my opinion, the editors have failed to establish the degree of transparency that should be minimally acceptable for any journal and certainly for one charged to host a forum in which ethical evaluations are right at the center.

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.