Defection from medical journal could be symptom of deeper sickness

Published on
June 17, 2011

Editor's Note: This is an updated version of a post originally published on June 17, 2011.

Most writers who have had the pleasure of working for great editors know that they can act as your advocate, your prosecutor, and your conscience — all in the span of a few minutes.

I have worked for many, including my current one at Center for Health Journalism Digital, Deputy Editor Barbara Feder Ostrov. Barbara helps shape the overall tone of the site and makes key decisions about what fits within our scope and what does not. She is always the first to notice if I have written something that falls short of our standards.

We rely on editors. But, when it comes to reporting on scientific journals, we mostly act as if they don't exist.

Gary Schwitzer at wrote recently about Hilde Lindemann, former president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, resigning from the editorial board of the American Journal of Bioethics. Lindemann wrote a letter that read in part:

While the journal has been hugely successful, there seems to be no oversight or accountability, so it is difficult for board members to know very much about the review process, the acceptance rate, the rate of submission, the journal's financial footing, who owns (as opposed to publishes) the journal, and other matters having to do with its day-to-day operations. I have been an editor myself for much of my adult life and I know what the pressure of deadlines can do to distort editorial judgment. But I also know that it's possible to run a journal transparently and responsibly, and I no longer feel confident that AJOB is so run. Until that changes, I cannot lend my name to its masthead.

The editor of the American Journal of Bioethics, Glenn McGee, wrote a letter to her disputing her assertions.

This is just McGee’s latest bit of bad press. In 2008, Brendan Borrell in Scientific American wrote "Unethical Ethicist?" after McGee left his post at Albany Medical College. Borrell wrote:

In fact, some of the accomplishments McGee cites on his 48-page curriculum vitae, on Web sites he manages, and in news reports are not quite what they appear at first glance.

McGee wrote in a comment on the Scientific American article at the time, “Borrell asserts that my CV is padded. Just asserts. No substantiation.”

Borrell continued:

A press release issued by Albany Medical College announcing his March 2005 arrival notes that he had also just been "named chief of the Office of Bioethics for the New York State Department of Health," a claim that McGee repeated during an interview last week. "When I moved to Albany,'' he told, "I was named chief of bioethics by the Wadsworth Center" at the New York State health department.

But that's not what the department remembers. "Dr. McGee is experiencing delusions of grandeur," says Jeffrey Hammond, a state health department spokesperson. "Let's set the record straight: McGee was a volunteer, not an employee. He gave himself the lofty title of chief of bioethics and as a volunteer was not compensated for his time."

Still, it’s not easy to be an academic journal editor. The Reuters Health piece I dissected Wednesday took one particular editor to task for apparent financial conflicts of interest. The editor had an unusually frank rejoinder: we editors earn a pittance and have to pay the rent somehow.

For example, Dr. Sherwood L. Gorbach, editor-in-chief of the influential Clinical Infectious Diseases, is also a vice president and chief medical officer with Optimer Pharmaceuticals, a San Diego-based company that develops antibiotics. Although he believes industry ties among journal editors are problematic, he said they might be hard to sever. ‘Medical journals, especially ours, don't pay a full salary,' said Gorbach, also at Tufts University in Boston. ‘In general they don't pay a living wage.'

That's not an excuse for using the journal to promote products in which the editor has a financial interest, but it points to a weakness in the system. Some of these journals can barely cover their bills, and the job of editing them is often thankless. When you combine those two things, you get people looking to cut corners and, perhaps, to cut deals they otherwise wouldn't want to make.

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Photo credit: Nic McPhee via Flickr