Charges of editorial misconduct at American Journal of Bioethics

Hilde Lindemann, former president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, has resigned as a member of the editorial board of the American Journal of Bioethics. 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. 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.

I have been an editor myself for much of my adult life and I know what the pressure of deadlines can do to distort editorial judgment. But I also know that it’s possible to run a journal transparently and responsibly, and I no longer feel confident that AJOB is so run. Until that changes, I cannot lend my name to its masthead.”

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June 9, 2011 at 5:07 pm

I don’t understand. It sounds like the org is messed up. But shouldn’t the board, ie Hilde herself, be enforcing oversight and accountability, assigning committee members, forcing the editor-in-chief to disclose financials, setting meeting schedules, and choosing its members?
Not a board I would want to be on in its current state, but why would you expect to be led when you’re a board member of anything in the first place?

Glenn McGee

June 9, 2011 at 6:19 pm

As the letter of resignation from the editorial board was posted to the blog, the following reply from the editors, transmitted this evening to Dr. Lindemann shortly after her posting, is below:
June 9, 2011
Dear Hilde,
We would like to thank you for your service to The American Journal of Bioethics. We accept your resignation from the Editorial Board.
We feel it is important to correct misstatements of fact made in your letter regarding the Journal and its oversight and accountability. The editorial board is called to meet annually at the meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (we have met seven out of the last ten years). This past Fall, for example, you were invited by email of October 5th to attend the meeting held October 22nd in Aqua 310 at the conference hotel, the Hilton Bayfront in San Diego. 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. The review process for AJOB is described at and in the Journal itself.
Regarding the Target article by Drs. Larry McCullough and Frank Chervenak that accused you and several other individuals of acting unethically, the editors stand by the process and procedures by which this article was peer reviewed and published. We published Open Peer Commentary from you and the others who were mentioned in the Target article. When you and your colleagues alleged undisclosed conflict of interest on the part of the authors, the Editors appointed a Conflict of Interest Committee, per our policy, comprised of members of the editorial board. As you were made aware, it was concluded that there were no undisclosed conflicts of interest that required disclosure. No erratum was or is required.
As was stated clearly on the MCW-Bioethics listserv a few months ago, The American Journal of Bioethics is wholly owned and published by Taylor & Francis LLC. The editorial offices and the editor-in-chief own no portion of the Journal. AJOB prides itself on transparency and integrity and we are willing to provide whatever reasonable information about the operation and financing of the Journal that our editorial board requests.
While the Editorial Board of the Journal does not play a role in the day to day operations of the Journal, it serves as an important resource that the Editors call upon for guidance, help in soliciting manuscripts and peer reviewers, and to contribute to the Journal. We are very grateful for the constant help that the board has provided to help make the Journal a success. We are sorry you have chosen to resign from the Board, thank you for your service, and wish you luck.
Glenn McGee, PhD, Editor-in-Chief
John B. Francis Chair in Bioethics
The Center for Practical Bioethics
David Magnus, PhD, Co-Editor
Director, Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics
Thomas A. Raffin Professor of Medicine & Biomedical Ethics
Stanford University
Paul Root Wolpe, PhD, Co-Editor
Director, Center for Ethics
Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Bioethics
Raymond F. Schinazi Distinguished Research Chair in Jewish Bioethics
Emory University

Alice Dreger

June 9, 2011 at 7:35 pm

The lead author of the AJOB Target Article mentioned in Dr. Lindemann’s letter is Laurence McCullough. Dr. McCullough used his Baylor affiliation on the Target Article, but apparently did not see fit to mention that he also works for units of Weill Cornell Medical College and Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the two institutions at the heart of the investigation he insisted we call off. (And he was calling us unethical for raising our concerns?)
McCullough also apparently did not tell the OHRP when he sent the draft of his AJOB article to them about his affiliations with Cornell and Mount Sinai.
That the editors of AJOB don’t have a problem with this failure of disclosure on this article is, well, curious.
More curious still: The ethicist charged with doing the FDA investigation we called for was Robert “Skip” Nelson. A couple of months later, the announcement came from McGee that Nelson had been given the editorship of a new subsidiary AJOB journal. Meanwhile AJOB gave Maria New, the Cornell/Mount Sinai researcher at the center of all this, space to declare that Nelson’s FDA report had completely vindicated her. Which it certainly had not. Not that Nelson or AJOB corrected her claims in AJOB. As Lindemann points out, AJOB apparently doesn’t run corrections.

Carl Elliott

June 11, 2011 at 3:14 pm

I resigned from the editorial board of AJOB nine years ago when I could not get straight answers to my questions about possible financial relationships between the editors, the journal, and the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Three years ago, an article appeared in a business magazine, suggesting that the journal had become part of a private bioethics business.
Hilde Lindemann writes that the journal’s finances are not transparent and that she has no idea who is on the conflict-of-interest committee, even though she was a member of the editorial board. These are reasonable questions, and one wonders why other editorial board members have not asked them. Most readers of bioethics journals assume that the journals are non-profit academic operations. But if AJOB is a private business, then readers and contributors might reasonably want to know more about the business model. How does the journal generates income? Are the editors paid, and if so, how much? Do the journal and its editors have partnerships with other for-profit businesses? If so, which ones?
Some of these questions are addressed in this commentary by Pete Shanks in Biopolitical Times.