You don't need to be signed in to read BMJ Blogs, but you can register here to receive updates about other BMJ products and services via our site.

Richard Smith: A ripping yarn of editorial misconduct

21 Oct, 08 | by BMJ

Richard Smith In what has been called the age of accountability, editors have continued to be as unaccountable as kings. But stories of editorial misconduct are growing, and another story, nothing less than a ripping yarn, has recently appeared in the Harvard Health Policy Review (2008; 9: 46-55.)
The story is told by Donald Light and Rebecca Warburton, the injured parties, and if vengeance is dish best served cold then this is a frosty but magnificent meal.


The villains are the three editors of the five editors of the Journal of Health Economics. All are professors at Harvard: Joe Newhouse, Richard Frank, and Tom McGuire. In 2003 the journal published a much quoted study from Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development that claimed that it cost $802m in 2000 dollars to bring a new drug to market. This claim is important to the pharmaceutical industry, which uses it to justify high prices for new drugs.

Light and Warburton were skeptical of the claim and in 2004 submitted a paper to the journal arguing that the claim was unfounded. They had multiple reasons for doubting the claim, including that it depended on confidential data that could not be verified. They also pointed out that the Tufts center had received funding from the pharmaceutical industry – which was declared on its website – but that this was not disclosed to readers of the Journal of Health Economics. In addition, Light and Warburton sent the editors evidence, some of it from the BMJ, of how competing interests strongly influence study findings.

The editors of the journal agreed to publish the paper with “major modifications,” and in particular they wanted removed the “unfair claims about the motives of the … authors.” It also emerged that the editors had sent the paper to the Tufts authors for review, and they had asked for corrections of “errors,” which Light and Warburton saw as facts “fully documented” on the Tufts website. The editors insisted that the “errors” be “corrected,” and Light and Warburton gave in – wanting their paper published in the prestigious journal.

In September 2004, five months after their paper was accepted, Light and Warburton were sent a copy of a reply from the Tufts authors that was twice as long as their commentary and full of material they regarded as dubious together with “personal attacks on our professionalism and competence.” They had two weeks to produce a response, which they did, but the editors insisted on removal of material that suggested that the results may have been influenced by competing interests.

McGuire in an email to Light and Warburton used a phrase that became very significant: “basically accept my chops on your rejoinder and get it published soon in the JHE” or take your critique elsewhere. Light and Warburton describe this as “ultimatum editing” but decided to accept under protest.

But then in January 2005 the editors pulled all the papers out of production without giving a reason. In March 2005 the editors said they would publish the papers but only if 100 of the 132 lines in Light and Warburton’s rejoinder were deleted.

With great reluctance, Leigh and Warburton accepted what they regarded as grossly unfair treatment – but simultaneously “searched frantically for some avenue of recourse or appeal.” Professional bodies were of no help, and “eminent editors reaffirmed that we were powerless.”

But then – it’s the American way – they turned to lawyers. Alan Milstein, “a litigator known for his creative and aggressive style,” offered help without a fee because “this is an important case.” Milstein through that McGuire’s reference to “accept my chops … and get it published in the JHE” amounted to a contract, He drafted a complaint that alleged “multiple breaches of contract and violations of academic freedom by the editors personally, the Journal, its Editorial Board, and Elsevier [the publishers].”

At this point Light and Warburton though that they may be going too far and sought help from Tony Culyer, a British economist and member of the editorial board of the Journal of Health Economics. They did, however, let McGuire know that a prominent trial lawyer was ready to litigate against him and the journal in a federal court. Unsurprisingly he was “stunned” and thought something could be worked out.

A combination of the threat and Culyer’s diplomacy meant that the papers were eventually published in July 2005, but Light and Warburton felt betrayed in that unbeknownst to them the editors had allowed the Tufts authors “greater length and latitude” for a last word response.

Leigh and Warburton believe that the editors of JHE have “violated … almost every ethical standard established for editors.” No doubt the editors will have another view, but there has until now been no forum for deciding whether there has been misconduct.

The story does, however, have a happy ending in that Elsevier has now signed up all of its journals to be members of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). Whether they like (or even know) it editors of all of these journals are now required to follow the codes of COPE and complaints against them can be considered by COPE. Self regulation is underway – about 200 years after it began for doctors.

Postscript: Since I drafted this blog and disappeared for a few days into the wilderness of the Scottish borders, access to the website of the Harvard Health Policy Review has been blocked.

Competing interest: RS has written repeatedly on editorial misconduct, is quoted in Light and Warburton’s article, and was one of the founders of COPE. Not only will he not benefit financially from this article but he has lost – because he has spent time when he could have been earning money writing this blog for which he will not be paid.

By submitting your comment you agree to adhere to these terms and conditions
  • david leopold

    hello Richard.

    This is the latest twist!
    http://www.hhpr.org/currentissue/

    the plot deepens..

    Kind regards
    David

  • http://www.semeioticabiofisica.it Sergio Stagnaro MD

    As a Reviewer, I admitt that Editor’s job is certainly not easy, especially when deciding on paper to original and thus difficult now to be understand. In any case, there is an efficacious tool in solving such as problem: honest dialogue with the authors.

  • Shailendra Joshi, MD

    Editors are the last line of defense in the peer-review process. No paper is ever perfect, the question arises just how far does the editorial discretion extend:

    A. With respect to data: What can an editor that is acceptable:
    1. Ignore obvious typographical errors, e.g., text vs. tables.
    2. Accept non-critical random data errors <3-5/publication.
    3. Accept critical and frequent data errors, that impact the publication both in style and substance.
    4. Accept missing data
    5. Accept data from unverifiable sources

    What should an editor do, post publication?
    1. Ask authors for correction in a letter.
    2. Issue a correction on his/her own with the author’s letter.
    3. Highlight errors without authors letter should they fail to respond adequately.
    4. Withdraw the publication, if the authors fail to respond or defend.
    5. Inform the author’s institution about serious data errors and/or suspected misconduct

    Furthermore,
    Should an editor correct data errors on his/her own?
    Should the authors always be involved in post publication data manipulation by an editor?

    Conflicts of interests:
    1. Should an editor defend members of the editorial board?
    2. Should an editor defend an institution he/his family works for or is applying for an appointment? Is a disclosure mandatory, as it is for authors?
    3. Should and editor defend a publication from an intuition with past financial relationships, if so is there an amount and time factor involved?
    4. How should an editor handle issue with pharmaceutical sponsors of the journal?
    5. Where should the editor disclose the conflicts of interests and that of the journal?
    6. Should there be a periodic listing of the journal revenue sources and those of the parent organization.

    The consequences of editorial misconduct:
    • Should the editorial ethical standards be higher than those for the authors?
    • What if the editor does not follow the journal guidelines, how many chances should an editor have? Editors are human too!
    • If the journal does not subscribe to COPE should the parent organization bear responsibility of editorial misconduct? Should the parent organization evaluate editors periodically or should that be left to the editorial board, an inherent conflict of interest?
    • Should journal be barred from journal data bases (pubmed/medline) for gross editorial violations? What is the threshold?

    Various journals have ventured to define these issues in the justifiably opaque terms. Is it not time to have crystal clear guideline to guide editors and have the teeth to enforce editorial misconduct?

  • lisa

    Who protects authors against “ideas piracy”? we have recently observed that soon after rejection of certain submissions similar articles were published. As long as the identity of reviewers is blind to authors, the possibility of using worthy proposals ideas can not be totally excluded, and if this happens what will an overseas author do?

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
BMJ blogs homepage

The BMJ

Helping doctors make better decisions. Visit site



Creative Comms logo

Latest from The BMJ

Latest from The BMJ

Latest from BMJ podcasts

Latest from BMJ podcasts

Blogs linking here

Blogs linking here