Sunday, 19 August 2012

Lots to do at the American Journal of Bioethics

As readers of this blog know, I have informed about and commented quite a bit on various controversies and debates surrounding the American Journal of Bioethics – when it comes to standard ways of ranking academic journals, the by far most influential of those in the field of bioethics and medical ethics, as well as celebrated for its pioneer editorial design with main "target articles" and rapid responses, plus a parallel publication online at the, a research, news and comment portal for bioethics. Notwithstanding these qualities, the recent events I have been reporting about have undoubtedly scarred AJOB as an institution and left the current management with a challenging task of restoring lost trust. A short reminder:

1. A high profile resignation from the editorial board by Hilde Lindemann due to doubts about the soundness of the journal's editorial and managerial policies (here, here, here).

2. An impossible conflict of interest situation within the editorial management of AJOB created when former editor in chief Glenn McGee resigned to take up a post as full-time consultant for the private stem cell banking company, CellTex, while his wife (a distinguished bioethicist ijn her own right, but under default legislation, of course, sharing the financial ties of her husband), Summer Johnson McGee took over the AJOB rudder (together with David Magnus). It didn't help the case that Glenn McGee's resignation process and move to CellTex was far from ideally managed (creating lots of completely unnecessary questions) or that the Cell Tex operation itself is highly questioned among bioethics researchers. My reports and comments are here, here, here, here, here, here. The affair resolved itself when Glenn McGee announced his resignation from the CellTex job (thereby severing the vested conflict of interest ties affecting Summer Johnson McGee), but had at that point already effected two heavy resignations from the editorial board by John Lantos (who provided a strongly worded explanation) and Udo Schüklenk, himself editor in chief of the journal Bioethics (the latter however, still listed as a board member at the AJOB website).

This last affair had a bit of a semi-relevant aftermath, when CellTex, the stem cell company to which Glenn McGgee had been signed on to provide ethics consultancy threatened University of Minnesota bioethicist Leigh Turner (as well as his university) with lawsuits, when he wrote a letter to the FDA, urging them to investigate CellTex. Almost simultaneously, Glenn McGee did a very similar thing to Carl Elliott, a bioethics professor at the same university as Turner, for his published criticism of McGee's involvement with CellTex, leading to a retraction by the publisher Slate. See here, and here. None of those events, of course, did any good for the stained reputation of AJOB and one would have wished the journal some peace and quiet to be able to set the ship back on a straight course. However, it does not seem to end there.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that a leading researcher of the Center for Practical Bioethics, Myra Christopher was to be included in a US Senate probe into suspected heavy duty corruption due to the sponsoring from pharmacological companies in the area of pain medication and care. Now, until not very long time ago, both the McGee's were attached to CPB and Christopher herself is a member of the AJOB editorial board. So far pretty circumstantial and not really a link. However, a very recent revelation is that AJOB, when publishing an article with Christopher as co-author, neglected to publish a meaty description of her conflicts of interests due to the pharma sponsorship of CPB, plus missed (possibly due to omissions by Christopher to follow the proscribed COI disclosure procedure) other similar COI's of her co-authors. More details are at William Heisel's Reporting on Health blog; here and here. In any case the link between the troubles at AJOB and the serious allegations against CPB and Christopher is through this development clearly more than circumstantial. AJOB has allowed the possibly corrupt situation at CPB to enter into its midst, and it did so when its editor in chief and one other editor was academically based at CPB, so that the journal was effectively run from there, and even more so its parallel online extension

Now, queried by Reporting on Health, David Magnus, one of the new editors in chief of AJOB described how steps are now taken to beef up the COI disclosure procedures of the journal. Together with the resolving of the conflict of interest situation, this bodes well for the journal's future, albeit the uphill that has to be climbed by Magnus and Johnson McGee and their co-workers on the editorial and managerial side of AJOB has not exactly become less steep. Being a fan of AJOB, it makes me happy to detect Magnus' resolve to clear up any remaining irregularities or integrity problems at AJOB, and thus take important steps to restore its reputation.

One of the things that continues to create suspicion and confusion is the relation and connection between AJOB and This, I assume what was explained Hilde Lindemann's doubts with regard to the ownership of AJOB, and the latest post at Reporting on Health displays confusion around where information about AJOB is to be had – at the T&F website of the journal or at It has, through the first of the controversies mentioned above, been made very clear that AJOB is owned and published by Taylor & Francis, which in turn are not involved in the ownership or operation of But, of course, there is a business deal of some sort between T&F and, lest the latter would not be able to offer its members automatic access to all AJOB material or so vigorously promote AJOB (no doubt contributing to its popularity and impact). When I checked before, when controversy no. 2 above was going on, none of these things were made very clear at the website. However, the information given has now clearly improved and the ownership of as well as its business link to AJOB is now described in the "about" section, thus: is owned and operated by Bioethics Internet Group. Bioethics Internet Group (BIG) is wholly owned by Summer Johnson McGee, Ph.D. Funding for is provided by paid banner advertisements appearing on the website and a stipend from Taylor and Francis, Inc.
To me, this explains a lot why it "had" to be Summer Johnson McGee who took over the rudder when Glenn McGee resigned to take up the CellTex job. Although separate financial and organisational entities, only one of which with financial ties to the McGee's, and AJOB are very much dependent on each other. Or AJOB is at least dependent on to the extent that the latter does contribute to the success of the journal. Or perhaps the double involvement in and AJOB helps to fund the no doubt unusually complicated editorial operation of the journal's ambitious design? In any case, it would seem very probable that stands and falls as a business with the link to AJOB. So far, perhaps not much of a problem for AJOB from an integrity perspective. But it may need to be discussed to what extent it may be a problem that the editor in chief of AJOB has a direct financial interest in what is being published by AJOB (since that will affect the traffic of and, through that, advertisement revenue of BIG, owned by Johnson McGee).

In any case, another matter for Magnus, Johnson McGee and the editorial board – as well as responsible officers at Taylor & Francis, of course – to ponder as they all continue their efforts to restore AJOB to its former glory.