Bioethics journal controversy reminds writers to be wary

The following is a cross-post of a piece originally published on the Reporting on Health site by William Heisel, who is one of our story reviewers on


Academic journals often have authoritative names: Cardiology, Neurology, Pediatrics.

Not to be outdone by the bold founders of the origins-of-everything journal Cell, a group of academics created the more-primary-than-you journal Molecules.

But what do health writers really know about the authority behind these journals?

Bioethicists have been abuzz for months about the apparent ethical infractions by the editorial staff of the very definitive-sounding American Journal of Bioethics or AJOB.

The journal editor at the center of the controversy, Glenn McGee, has always seemed to me to be a thoughtful voice on very tricky issues. Ethicists can be quote machines for reporters. Dial them up and you will have your lead quote within five minutes. I have never interviewed McGee, but when quoted, he often sounds less provocative than many ethicists. For example, Daniel Engber at Salon wrote a great piece in 2002 about the American Dental Association running an ad campaign on oral cancer that appeared to be focused entirely on drumming up new business for the campaign’s corporate sponsor.

“These ads are a classic example of what professional societies should not do,” McGee said. “No matter how well-intentioned, corporate sponsored campaigns on the part of the most important association in dentistry send the message that the organization is bought.”

Shortly after founding AJOB, McGee resigned as the chair of the ethics advisory board for Advanced Cell Technologies after the company failed to disclose to the board that it was attempting to clone zoo animals. He later told an interviewer, “The danger here is that ethics advisory boards in the world of stem cells, we as ethicists are beginning to play a role where we’re rubber stamps.”

Now McGee is under fire for his work with a different stem cell company, accused of taking a corporate position with the firm and continuing to run AJOB without disclosing his new job.

I leave it to the ethicists to sort out the ethics of what happened. (David Cyranoski at Nature wrote a tidy summary of the controversy on Tuesday, and two University of Minnesota bioethicists, Dr. Carl Elliott and Leigh Turner, wrote very well-researched pieces for Slate and Health in the Global Village, respectively.) At a minimum, the allegations suggest a few questions worth asking whenever you’re writing about a work being published in a journal. I’ll start with two and have more later in the week.

Who is the journal’s editor? In the case of AJOB, McGee made a name for himself in the field in the 1990s when he was at the University of Pennsylvania. Perhaps letting his ego get the best of him, he described himself as “Socrates with a beeper.”

Since leaving Penn in 2005, McGee made a series of hurried exits from various academic posts, often in the midst of a controversy. After one of those exits, Scientific American wrote a detailed investigation of him in 2008. That was when he left the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College shortly after he founded it. He was accused, among other things, of ignoring the objections of colleagues who did not feel the science behind a particular study was strong enough for a journal submission and then forging their signatures to make the submission without their knowledge. Then he was accused of conducting a superficial investigation into the deaths of two patients who had received controversial stem cell treatments and writing a report that helped absolve the company of the deaths. The goal, allegedly, was to protect South Korea’s RNL Bio. A year after he wrote the report, McGee went to work for Houston-based CellTex Therapeutics, which licenses RNL Bio’s technology for use in the U.S. That move is at the heart of the new controversy.

Where is the journal located? Some smaller journals exist wherever the person doing all the paperwork has an office. The various medical trade groups, such as the American Medical Association and the British Medical Association, publish journals or whole suites of journals. There are several large companies that publish multiple journals – Elsevier, Biomed Central, Karger, to name a few. AJOB lists its editorial offices in two different places depending on where you look.

If you go to the journal’s site and click on Editorial Offices, you are taken to the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, Missouri. But if you go to the link on the page that says The Editors, the editorial offices are listed as: “American Journal of Bioethics, 3030 Post Oak Blvd. Suite 805, Houston, TX 77056.” This appears to be either a small office park or a cluster of rental homes. It’s also in the same city as CellTex Therapeutics.

Turner and Elliott at the University of Minnesota have been following the journal’s changes for several years now and say that McGee has been running the journal from CellTex. This would mean he is trying to keep control of AJOB while working for a corporation that is at the heart of a very ethically fraught field of science. This move seems counter to his earlier stance on Advanced Cell Technologies. The journal issued a press release announcing that McGee would no longer be editor of the journal but that editorial duties would now be shared by a Stanford University professor and Summer Johnson McGee, never mentioning that Johnson McGee is Glenn McGee’s wife. Elliott wrote in Slate last week:

On Thursday, Feb. 16, John Lantos, a pediatrician and former president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, announced that he had resigned from the editorial board and was boycotting the journal. “If, as we’ve been told, [the publisher of the journal] really asked Glenn McGee to stay on as editor once he’d taken a job at Celltex, and if they really believed that the resulting conflicts-of-interest were manageable, one must wonder about both their judgment and their mission,” Lantos wrote. “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. One might rightly wonder, ‘What are these people smoking?’

Of course, that question would be even more acute if the editor in question had helped cover up the risks of Vioxx, the dangerous pain drug that Merck was forced to withdraw from the market in 2004. The most troubling question about this entire affair turns on the relationship between McGee, Celltex, and RNL. Did McGee help whitewash two deaths from stem cell treatments and parlay that whitewash into a corporate position?

Have your own take on the AJOB kerfuffle? Leave a comment below. You can also reach me at or follow me on Twitter @wheisel.

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