Question Authority: Push For More Transparency In Scientific Journals

Published on
February 24, 2012

Editor's Note: This is an updated version of a post originally published on Feb. 24.

One of the first journalists to take notice of the problems at the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB) was Ivan Oransky. He was an editor at Scientific American in 2008 when he noticed some interesting status updates by the journal's editor, Glenn McGee, on Facebook. He assigned a reporter to the story, and it resulted in a fascinating investigation. Oransky, now the executive editor at Reuters Health, is a born skeptic, and he thinks, as I do, that reporters should know more about the places that are publishing all the scientific studies that make headlines every day. He and Gary Schwitzer, publisher of, shared some of their tips for researching journals with my editor, Barbara Feder Ostrov, last year.

I wrote on Wednesday about some of the questions reporters should ask when writing about a study in a journal or the journal itself. More are below.

What do those titles mean? Journal editors often have lengthy bios. These are professionals who, ostensibly, have accomplished much and, as a result, have been granted the trust necessary to act as gatekeepers for science, medicine, law, and many other disciplines. If they don't agree to publish it, the world may never see it. Brendan Borrell at Scientific American wrote that McGee had told the publication, "When I moved to Albany I was named chief of bioethics by the Wadsworth Center" at the New York State health department. McGee, himself, wrote about taking on that role in 2006 for The Scientist.

Borrell writes:

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."

How does the journal make money? The British Medical Journal (BMJ) states clearly how it makes money:

The BMJ receives revenue from a range of sources, to ensure wide and affordable access while maintaining high standards of quality and full editorial independence. The sources of income include subscriptions from institutions and individuals; classified advertising for jobs and courses; display advertising for pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical products; events (exhibitions, sponsorship, and visitor fees); sale of reprints, rights, and royalties; and sponsorship. Separation is maintained between the editorial team and the advertising and sponsorship sales teams. Where sponsorship has been obtained for any BMJ content-for example, as a result of an unrestricted educational grant-this is clearly indicated.

AJOB, by contrast, does not explain its revenue picture on its site. It does feature prominent advertisements, but everyone in publishing knows that a few online ads don't typically cover a publication's costs. When Hilde Lindemann, a philosophy professor at Michigan State University, resigned from AJOB's board in 2011, she wrote that she had been very concerned about the lack of oversight and accountability and lack of information about, "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." Lindemann wrote:

I do not know who sits on the conflict of interest committee even though the Information for Authors page says it is "comprised [sic] of members of the editorial board." And although the editor-in-chief has said he would disclose the financials of the journal, he has not done so-at least, not to me. The board is never called to meet; we are never consulted as a group in any meaningful fashion. It's not even clear who chooses the board, or on what basis. So it seems that our good names go toward a journal that we know very little about.

How does the peer review process work? Some journals have a completely closed peer review system where the reviewers don't know the names of the authors on the paper, and the authors don't know the names of the reviewers. At the other extreme are the totally open systems where everyone knows everyone and even the reviewers' notes about the articles are open to the public. Every journal should, at a minimum, explain the basic outlines of the peer review process for a particular study. AJOB's process is a bit of a mystery. In its “For Authors,” section, there is no explanation of peer review. Contrast that to this 2006 explanation of peer review in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. Even Lindemann, when she was on the board, wrote that the board did not know much about the review process, the acceptance rate or the rate of submission. McGee countered in a letter to her, "All of the current information about the journal to which you refer is presented at that meeting, and the annual brochure, including acceptance rate, number of articles accessed and impact factor, is distributed." At least two other former board members have said that they do not recall the board ever even holding a meeting.

Does the journal own up to mistakes? Like newspapers, journals should be in a regular habit of fixing mistakes, especially the big ones. Here, I think even McGee's critics have to give him and AJOB some credit. The journal has published corrections (or errata, as they're known in the journal world) and even pulled articles it found wanting. McGee said about one paper in particular:

We ourselves had to pull one of the papers about the Korean scandal because we ultimately said in our retraction article in the American Journal of Bioethics, we said the group that had promised that there was an ethics code that was followed in Korea, this is one of the most important papers we published. It was hugely prestigious, quoted in AP stories, appeared in every newspaper in the English speaking world that carries the AP. We had to retract this paper because we could not vouch for the fact that those people had actually any clue what had or hadn't gone on in the laboratory. Thinking about that led us to have to write a paper about what we called "gee whiz" or "I was there" papers, a category that didn't even exist a year ago. And that category means the kind of quick, bang it out, 600 word article for Nature or AJOB or whatever, where you say, "we don't really know yet, but this is what we think we saw.

But the journal also has a history of being accused of ignoring critics. Well-known bioethicist Alice Dreger at the Feinberg School of Medicine of Northwestern University and colleagues – including Lindemann – wrote that they were not allowed to adequately respond to allegations that they had acted unethically and were not allowed to correct basic inaccuracies in an AJOB article about their work. (The whole affair, which centered on treating pregnant women with dexamethasone to prevent sexually ambiguous genitalia, merits its own post.)

I contacted McGee on Sunday and asked him if he would answer a few questions about his departure form AJOB and the resulting controversy. I have not heard back. The journal's new co-editor, David Magnus, wrote a rebuttal to the journal's critics that was posted Thursday. He says, among other things:

Most of the attacks fail to acknowledge that Glenn had already been working to transition out of his role at AJOB as soon as he accepted his new position. During the transition he had no role in the oversight or acceptance of manuscripts for the journal. Failure to acknowledge that he was in the process of transitioning out of AJOB and that conflict of interest provisions had been put in place is a misleading rendition of events.

McGee posted a link to the rebuttal on Twitter, saying, "Some prefer scut, libel, ad hominem, fact free nonsense, sexism. If that's not you, #AJOB begs you to *read* the facts."

By this point, McGee may have grown accustomed to frequent criticism. Back in 2008, according to Scientific American, he wrote to a colleague that "having spent my literal last dollar on lawyers and divorce, and now labor law, I am going to be entering a new phase of my career in which I am a dartboard."

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