Wednesday 22 December 2010

Im-Personal reflections on the Medical Hypotheses Affair: Editors of major medical and scientific journals- The Dog that didn'tbark

A brief account of the Medical Hypotheses Affair may be found here:

But there is one general aspect which I learned from the experience, and which is - I think - worth further emphasis. 

This is the aspect of The Dog That Didn't Bark.


The Dogs whose silence throughout this episode was so highly significant were the editors of the major medical and scientific journals, indeed editors of all academic journals were silent.

Twenty five years ago there would, without any shadow of doubt, have been vigorous comment on the happenings at Medical Hypotheses from (say) the editors of Nature, Science, the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, the Lancet, the British Medical Journal and others.

And the gist of this would have been: publishers must keep their hands-off editorial independence.

Instead: silence.




The MeHy Affair was a very explicit and highly public example of a publisher intervening directly to over-ride the editor of an established scholarly journal.

This was not merely affecting the conduct of academic discourse, but directly shaping the content of published academic discourse.

In their actions towards Medical Hypotheses, the publishers (Reed-Elsevier - who publish about 20 percent of the world scholarly journals, and a higher proportion of those journals with high impact in their fields) decided what went into the scholarly literature and what did not.

More exactly, specific managers employed by a publishing corporation decided what went into the scholarly literature and what did not.


Precisely, the publishers of Medical Hypotheses acted unilaterally to withdraw two already-e-published  papers from a scholarly journal and delete them from the online records. 

And then (in the period of time leading up to the editor being sacked) Elsevier managers continued to filter-out papers that had been formally accepted for publication by the editor (in other words the papers were officially 'in the press') - but which these managers regarded as unacceptable in some way, and therefore withdrew from the publication process.

In other words, managers took direct control of the content of the published academic literature.


Why was The Silence of the Editors so significant?

In an abstract sense, Elsevier's behaviour contravened the basic established conduct of academic discourse - which is supposed to be independent of publishers and a matter decided between editors and scholars.

Indeed, this was, by a strict 'legalistic' definition, a direct breach of the principle of academic freedom.

So - even abstractly considered - it would be expected that leading journal editors would have raised objections to the corruption of academic discourse.


But there is a much more direct and personal reason to expect leading editors to comment.

Which is that condoning Elsevier's actions set a precedent for further instances whereby managers employed by publishers will simply over-ride editorial independence: managers will decide what gets into journals and what does not.

So, by remaining silent, each editor of each major journal made it more likely that in future their publisher would do the same to them as Elsevier did to me!


Why would leading editors of major journals condone such a thing?

There is a simple explanation: that they are afraid.

As in Vaclav Havel's Poster Test: the Silence of the Editors was a coded statement unambiguously (but deniably) meaning: "I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient".


So now we know that the editors of leading scholarly journals are not independent.

That editors of leading journals are already doing what publishers want.

That the editors of leading journals have accepted this situation as a fait accompli.


This particularly applies to The Lancet, which is published by Elsevier.

In the past, the Lancet was a fiercely, indeed aggressively, independent journal.

Past editors of the Lancet would not have imagined for a moment acceding to managerial pressure from publishers.

Clearly things have changed, and the current Lancet is happy to operate as a smokescreen for the publishers influence on the medical science literature.


Yet the current Lancet editors went one step further than merely acceding to pressure from the publishers, they actually assisted the publishers in over-riding editorial independence in a quasi rational manner.

The Lancet arranged a 'show trial ' whereby the papers which Elsevier management had withdrawn from Medical Hypotheses were 'refereed' by a group of anonymous persons such that it could be claimed that for the papers had been rejected by peer review.

This sham process was implemented by The Lancet, despite the blazingly obvious paradox that the main point of Medical Hypotheses was that it was an editorially reviewed - not peer reviewed; on the rationale that MeHy provided a forum for papers which would probably be rejected by peer review, but which justified publication as hypotheses for other reasons.

There is only one coherent conclusion: that the modern Lancet is a lap-dog of its publisher.


What did I conclude from the Dogs That Did Not Bark?

I realized that science was in an even-worse state that I had previously recognized. That the level of corruption and deception went both deeper and further than I had previously recognized.

And that the role of major journals had moved beyond acquiescence with the forces of darkness and into actual collusion.

That, in fact, science was not just sick but in an advanced state of dissolution: and that indeed the head of the fish was by-now dead and already putrefied.


Note added: Glen P Campbell - who (seemed to be - the senior Elsevier manager responsible for the Medical Hypotheses Affair, (presumably) including over-riding of editorial autonomy, was subsequently appointed to be American director of the British Medical Journal in late 2013. This is consistent with the above argument.

From: International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers- The Voice of Academic and Professional Publishing:

GLEN P. CAMPBELL, US Managing Director, The BMJ  Glen has been in STM publishing for more than 34 years, starting with Alan R. Liss in 1980. In 1984, he was appointed an Editor for books and journals in the life sciences, and continued at John Wiley & Sons after they acquired Liss. In 1990, Glen joined Elsevier as a Biomedical Journals Editor. Over more than 23 years at Elsevier, he held a number of positions with responsibility for setting strategies for the growth and development of biomedical journals in print and online. In his roles as EVP, Global Medical Research, he oversaw more than 435 journals in the health science, including The Lancet, and many premier society journals.  In his role as EVP, STM Society Publishing, Glen worked with many of the most prestigious societies in the health, life, physical, and social sciences. Glen joined BMJ late in 2013 as Managing Director the US, and is thrilled to be working on the development and growth of The BMJ, BMJ Journals, and BMJ Clinical Improvement Products in North America. Glen is a past Chair of the Executive Council of the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division (PSP) of the Association of American Publishers (AAP). In addition, he serves on the American Medical Publishers Committee (AMPC) of the PSP and the AMPA/National Library of Medicine Subcommittee of that group. Glen is currently Chair of Board of Directors of the Friends of the National Library of Medicine.