Slap: American Journal of Bioethics Goes On Offense During Painkiller Inquiry

Published on
May 17, 2012

In my Monday post about the American Pain Foundation, I mentioned the Center for Practical Bioethics, saying, "What reporters may find is that the center is tied up with another topic much written about on Antidote: the ongoing troubles at the American Journal of Bioethics."

That was it. 

Later that day, the Editor's Blog on the American Journal of Bioethics website,, posted what amounts to an unsigned threat:

It has been implied by Carl Elliott and William Heisel that it has ever been claimed that 'financial links between the Center for Practical Bioethics, AJOB and Purdue Pharma' exist and that 'what reporters may find is that the center is tied up' with AJOB. We hope that our statement below will quell inaccurate speculation and prevent future defamatory statements about AJOB by these two writers or any others who might mistake their statements for facts.

The statement then outlines distinctions between the American Journal of Bioethics, the Center for Practical Bioethics and any pharmaceutical funding that the center may have received. The use of the word "defamatory" is deliberate. It's like using the word "plagiarism" or "assault." It has legal ramifications and a real sting.

I first wrote in June 2011 about the American Journal of Bioethics, which, as its name implies, focuses on ethical issues in the biological sciences and medicine. A member of the journal's board had left, citing concerns with some of the journal's practices and what she saw as a lack of transparency.

Then, when the journal's founding editor, bioethics consultant and former professor Glenn McGee, went to work for a controversial stem cell company, it stirred debate among bioethicists. McGee, some said, was continuing to run the ethics journal while working for a company that was making and marketing stem cell products that had not been approved by U.S. regulators.

Now the journal may be in for some fresh scrutiny, because the U.S. Senate Finance Committee has launched a sweeping inquiry into organizations –including the Center for Practical Bioethics – where McGee and his wife, Summer Johnson McGee, worked until recently. The committee is investigating financial and other ties between those advocating for increased use of pain medication and drug manufacturers.

During all of my writings on these developments, no one at the ethics journal ever emailed me or called me to question my posts or to suggest corrections to any errors of fact. McGee, meanwhile, has never responded to my repeated requests for interviews.

Then on Monday, someone using the Twitter account anonymously tweeted to me: "Before you comment about AJOB you may want to check your facts."

It included a link to the oddly worded post I mentioned at the beginning of this note. It seemed to be saying that a single sentence I included in my earlier blog post, which briefly mentioned the center and AJOB, was, in and of itself, defamatory.

Who wrote it? It was hard to say.

So I tweeted back asking about authorship. I never received a reply.

Because the post was published on "The Editors Blog," I presumed it was written by the journal's co-editors, David Magnus from Stanford University and Summer Johnson McGee. Early Tuesday, I sent emails to Johnson McGee and Magnus asking if they had written the post and asking them to explain to me which facts they considered defamatory. Here's what I wrote:

I was sent an anonymous message on Twitter about a blog post I had written about the American Pain Foundation, which mentioned the Center for Practical Bioethics and the American Journal of Bioethics. The message linked to a threatening note posted on titled "the editors blog." You are the co-editor of AJOB. Did you write the note? And, if so, who else was involved in writing the note?

I ask because I am going to write a blog post about the pattern of using threatening language against writers and editors by people affiliated with AJOB and with Celltex Therapuetics. A draft of the post is below. If you wrote the note and if you or someone affiliated with you wrote me the message telling me to "check your facts," please let me know which facts are in dispute. If you did not write the note, do you, as the co-editor for AJOB, endorse its content?

I included a draft of the post you are reading now.

Johnson McGee did not respond. Magnus wrote me back Tuesday night. He did not answer my questions, other than to essentially say that, yes, he endorsed the content of the post.

The intent of the post on is very simple. Given that you and Carl Elliott and a few other bloggers have a history of making false claims regarding AJOB (and I note at least two inaccurate claims in your email) as well as a concern to be transparent, we wanted to disclose some basic facts-hopefully to inform future claims that you and others make about AJOB.

So I followed up with another email, this time explicitly asking him to reconsider the use of the word "defamatory" and asking again that he point out any errors of fact that have appeared in Reporting on Health. I delayed publishing this post to give him more time to respond.

Late in the evening Wednesday, Magnus replied in an email. He did not point out any factual errors in any of my posts. Instead, it appears, his real grievances are with the criticisms levied against the ethics journal and McGee by an ethicist colleague of his, Carl Elliott, which I have shared earlier.

In the email, he states:

I believe very strongly in a free press and in the open exchange of ideas. That is the reason why AJOB has the format it does. But that should not be seen as a license to engage in irresponsible, unsupported, inaccurate and damaging claims. AJOB has not and will not attempt to stifle any debate or even criticisms of the journal-as long as any claims made are accurate and fair.

I'm glad to hear that.

As Magnus knows, articles about pain management published in AJOB and articles published by Johnson McGee, his co-editor at the ethics journal, have come under new scrutiny because of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee inquiry. I'll write about some of those articles in my next post.

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Slap: Celltex Threatens University of Minnesota For Ethicist's FDA Letter

Slap: Pressure From Politically-Connected Stem Cell Firm Celltex Leads To Slate Retraction

Question Authority: Push For More Transparency In Scientific Journals

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