Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Conflict of Interest Claim Towards New AJOB Editorial Arrangement is not Sexist

The controversy surrounding the new editorial arrangement for the American Journal of Bioethics after Glenn McGee decided to step down in order to work full time as consultant for stem cell company CellTex (covered in former posts here, here and here) continues, now in the landscape of big science, in this news article in Nature.

In the article, new editor in chief, Summer Johnson McGee defends the decision of publisher Taylor & Francis to appoint her editor in chief against the criticism that this cements rather than resolves the conflict of interest created by Glenn McGee's move to industry:
Responding to questions from Nature, Summer Johnson McGee says that the journal has a conflict-of-interest policy that requires editors to withdraw from reviewing a manuscript if they perceive a conflict. She calls allegations that her appointment results from her relationship with her husband “baseless and sexist”.

Now, the firtst line of defense here has already been addressed by the critics, in particular by John Lantos, who resigned from the AJOB editorial board over this matter. And I happen to agree with John about how much of a wife-of-Ceasar-principle has to be applied in the case of defending the credibility of bioethics journals. Simply put: one of the well-known logics of conflicts of interests is that they tend to make you bad at spotting where the conflict is actualised in particular cases. Thus, the report c-o-i based on subjective perception principle is not by itself good enough. A broader margin of safety against suspicion is required to uphold the credibility of a leading ethics journal.

More interesting is Johnson McGee's second line of defense. The claim of "baselessness" is, of course a complete misnomer and question-begger. It is a fact that she and Glenn McGee are married and that, in virtue of that arrangement, vested interests of Glenn McGee are by default also such interests of Summer Johnson McGee. Therefore, I have argued, the conflict of interest is not resolved but rather sustained by switching from one to the other in the leading editorial management role of AJOB.

Now, this way of arguing is, Johnson McGee seems to hold, sexist. Well, Summer, allow me to retort that it is in fact this very line of defense of yours that is a case of sexism. The argument based on default economic relations between spouse holds regardless of the sex or gender of the people involved in this relationship. That is, my argument would have stuck just as much had the roles between you and Glenn been reversed (you being the one leaving the e-i-c position for industry, and Glenn taking up your managerial torch). What you seem to claim is that you should be let off the hook because you happen to be a woman. That, if anything, is a sexist line of argument.

If this is all there to say in defense of the new AJOB editorial arrangements, I would say that the state of things in the management of this journal appear to be even worse than what they appeared to be before. For I cannot convince myself that even Johnson McGee herself seriously believes in what she tries to sell through Nature. This, I would say is not the voice of conviction, but of desperation.