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

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

Picture of William Heisel

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, Bioethics.net, 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 Bioethics.net 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 Bioethics.net 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 bioethics.net 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.

Related Posts:

Q&A with Leigh Turner, Part 3: Celltex Tries to Intimidate a Whistleblower

Q&A with Leigh Turner, Part 2: Finding Ethical Quandaries Amid Academic Rivalries

Q&A with Leigh Turner: Tracking Medical Tourism Consequences

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

Question Authority: A Bioethics Journal Controversy Reminds Writers to Be Wary

Comments

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William, you are not alone in being threatened. I'm in that club too. You have much support though for your reporting.
Paul

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I appreciate your efforts to get AJOB's editors to answer basic questions like who is sending hostile messages from their twitter account and who is blogging for them on this issue. It seems very odd indeed that AJOB's editors are not willing to attribute clear authorship to their productions.

But then everything about AJOB is odd, isn't it?

How else do you explain not requiring a CoI disclosure on the pain med advocacy article when the editors must have known (because 2 of the editors and 1 of the article's authors all worked at the Center for Practical Bioethics at the time, right?) that at least one of the authors had ties to paid med makers?

How else do you explain, in another instance involving my own work, a target article's lead author not disclosing that he is paid by the two entities he is angrily defending in his target article? (And how do you explain AJOB's refusal to add a disclosure even after this was brought to their attention.)

How else do you explain an FDA official being given an editorship-in-chief at AJOB-PR at the very same time AJOB is publishing a target article attacking those who called for the investigation the very same FDA official is running? (And how do you explain that nobody ever thought to mention the curious dual relationship that FDA official had with AJOB at that point? Not to mention the FDA official welcoming onto his editorial board -- at the same time -- the lead author of the target article attacking those who called for that investigation?)

The only thing we don't really understand is why AJOB isn't run out of Elsevier. Elsevier is, after all, the specialist in the publication of journals functioning as fronts for undisclosed interests. One presumes Elsevier just doesn't pay as well as Taylor & Francis.

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Helpful hint to would-be defamation plaintiffs:

If you sue, you're going to be asked to be very specific about what you feel is defamatory.

Why not save everyone a lot of grief and list alleged inaccuracies right off the bat? That way, the would-be defendants can correct them if necessary, and you don't look like a belligerent slap-happy oaf bluffing his or her way through commentary he/she doesn't like.

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Must be pretty scary for you to have someone say that in the future if you publish things that are false, which you apparently have in the past, given that your posts about this subject are all factually different one from another, it would be unfortunate...because someone used the word defamatory in a private threat -- no scratch that -- a blog post signed as The Editors -- and then sent you the very first anonymous tweet in which (gasp?!) they suggested that you check your facts! This is like a legal threat! I'd be terrified if I were you. After all, if your piece is as inaccurate as the one that Slate, who never retract anything, retracted after a week-long investigation, you might get an ACTUAL threat yourself! And that mere fact is threatening!! These people at AJOB are mobsters. Monsters. Irresponsible cads. How do they continue to exist. [Perhaps if you talked to anyone other than Carl Elliott or Leigh Turner or Hilde Nelson you'd have some idea why they are unscathed by bullshit attacks...but that would mean doing actual research and fact checking!]

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