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Second Editor Leaves Ethics Journal in Less Than a Year

Second Editor Leaves Ethics Journal in Less Than a Year

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Editor's Note: This is an updated version of a post originally published on Tuesday, Sept. 11.

The shakeup continues at The American Journal of Bioethics.

Summer Johnson McGee stepped down as the journal’s co-editor-in-chief this month. She took the job six months ago, after her husband, founding editor Glenn McGee, left the journal. Her departure comes in the wake of a series of problems at the journal. In her farewell note to "Friends of The American Journal of Bioethics and bioethics.net," she wrote, in part:

I want to share with all of you that Friday, September 14, 2012 will be my last day at The American Journal of Bioethics and bioethics.net. In mid-August, I had detailed conversations with both David Magnus and the publisher about my desire to leave AJOB. I have elected also that bioethics.net, the blog, the weekly newsletter, and all of its social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) will no longer be owned and operated by me nor will the editorial office reside with me any longer. I have so enjoyed working with you as peers, and I owe you a succinct explanation for my departure. I firmly believe that we are right to be proud of the Journal's last twelve years, the first era of The American Journal of Bioethics. AJOB accomplished things that no one in bioethics or publishing thought possible, least of all its editors and staff. Until a few months ago, I often said that the work I did for AJOB felt impactful and rewarding, even important. AJOB no longer feels that way to me. Whether it is me, the field, or the journal that has changed, I know that I no longer want to lead our field's most cited journal.

So what led up to this?

Journal co-editor Magnus describes the bioethics journal as, by many measures, in great shape with the highest number of citations by peers among journals in the field. “We continue to have a flow of outstanding articles that have a large impact,” Magnus wrote me recently. He also noted that an article in the journal about the International Olympic Committee’s gender testing policies resulted in editorials in The New York Times and The Guardian.

Now, let's look at what else happened at the journal since mid-2011. During that time Johnson McGee was either running the journal as co-editor-in-chief (a role she started in March 2012) or serving as the journal’s executive editor. In that role, which she assumed in 2008, “she has been continuously responsible for all editorial activities of AJOB and its editorial office, including participation in the internal review process,” a journal press release stated when announcing her promotion to co-editor-in-chief.

June 2011: Hilde Lindemann, former president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, resigned from the journal’s editorial board saying that she no longer felt that the journal was being run “transparently and responsibly”.

She wrote, “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.” Her resignation was met with much discussion about whether it was in response to an article that had been critical of the work of her and two colleagues. As Magnus wrote me, "We published an article very critical of her and some colleagues (in fact accusing her of acting unethically). Though Hilde resigned and called on others to resign, no one else did." Lindemann has written that the lead author of the paper critical of her had undisclosed conflicts of interest and that the accusations against her suffered from “key errors and omissions.”

December 2011: Glenn McGee, while serving as editor of the journal, started work as president for ethics and strategic initiatives at Celltex Therapeutics in Houston, Texas. The firm markets stem cell products to customers for uses that don't have FDA approval. (Health and safety concerns about Celltex practices  prompted a critical FDA report in April 2012.)

The journal did not immediately announce McGee’s move to Celltex. And, as word leaked out, controversy followed.

David Cyranoski at Nature wrote in February, “Although McGee has said he will leave the journal on 1 March, many bioethicists have criticized him, the journal’s editorial board and its publisher, London-based Taylor and Francis. They argue that in holding both posts, McGee has a conflict of interest between his responsibilities to the journal and his new employer’s desire to promote the clinical application of stem-cell treatments that are not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.”

Magnus says now that even though the general public and many of his peers in the field were not let in on McGee's move, "at the time Glenn accepted the position at Celltex he had already decided to resign from AJOB, that this was known by some members of the Editorial Board, that a transition plan was underway, and that in the short time between his acceptance of the new position and his leaving the journal he had no role in the content of the journal.

“One complicating factor in this,” he added in a recent email to me, “is the way academic journal schedules work. For example, though Summer has resigned and will cease working for the journal as of this Friday, she will remain the [co-editor-in-chief] through the end of the year (since the primary editorial work for those issues is already done)."

February 2012: Another defection from the editorial board. John Lantos, a pediatrician and former president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, said he was quitting the journal’s board and even boycotting the journal. Lantos wrote at the time, "Imagine that the editor of the New England Journal took a job as Vice President at Merck, and the Mass Medical Society asked him to stay on as editor, opining that the conflicts of interest would be manageable."  McGee surprised many later that month by quitting Celltex.

March 2012: David Magnus and Summer Johnson McGee officially took over as co-editors. Johnson McGee had been serving as executive editor, and Magnus was and is director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University.

Magnus wrote, "Taylor and Francis, the publisher of the journal selected her to be co-Editor in Chief at MY recommendation (not Glenn's) on the basis of her substantial role in the running of the journal."

May 2012: The U.S. Senate Finance Committee sent a letter to the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, which for years had been the editorial home for the ethics journal. As part of an ongoing inquiry into widespread problems with addictions to painkillers, the finance committee is investigating ties between academic centers, advocacy groups and pharmaceutical companies. Up until February 2012, the journal had listed the center as its editorial office on its website. This opened up to new scrutiny many of the articles published in the ethics journal that promoted, for example, more expansive use of painkillers by authors who had received funding from pharmaceutical companies.

One of the journal’s editorial board members, Myra Christopher, also was named by the Senate committee in its inquiry. She was the center’s previous president and is the center’s Kathleen M. Foley Chair in Pain and Palliative Care. That chair is funded by Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin and other drugs.

August 2012: After an inquiry by the journal into conflicts of interest, the journal printed a lengthy correction related to articles that were published in one issue focused on pain management. As I wrote at the time, there were “at least 24 conflicts that definitely should have been disclosed by the journal in articles about pain management. There were 23 authors involved in the November 2010 issue on pain medicine. Of those, at least eight had conflicts that were not published in the journal.”

And now Johnson McGee is stepping down.

Drop a comment below or send me a note at askantidote@gmail.com. You can also reach me via Twitter @wheisel.

Related Posts:

Bioethics Center with Money Ties to Big Pharma Has Habit of Downplaying Painkiller Risks

Ethics Journal Fixing Disclosure Process to Catch More Conflicts

Journal Should Keep Correcting Itself on Conflict of Interest

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

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