Sunday, March 15, 2009

Medical journal primadonnas

Interesting story on conflict-of-interest reporting in biomedical journals. As you may or may not know, most leading biomedical journals require their authors (as well as peer reviewers and editors) to declare any kind of conflict of interest that they might have with regard to the manuscript/content under consideration by the journal. JAMA, the high-impact journal of the American Medical Association published a piece on the use of a particular anti-depressant in stroke patients. The study duly underwent anonymous peer review, passed peer review and so it went into print. Standard operating procedure as far as as biomedical peer reviewed content publishing is concerned.

The Wall Street Journal health blog reports an interesting fall-out between a neuro-anatomy professor in the USA and some of JAMA's editors. What happened, according to the WSJ blog is this: Jonathan Leo, the neuro-anatomy professor in question, published a letter on the website of the British Medical Journal's website alleging that the authors of the study in question failed to disclose a financial conflict of interest. Turns out that the allegations were correct. JAMA published in its March 11, 2009 issue an erratum including the omitted conflict of interest declaration as well as an apology from the study's lead authors.

What's interesting, however, is what happened in-between. Jonathan Leo, a professor at a small college in Tennessee received shortly after publication of his letter on the BMJ website a call from one of the editors of JAMA. He claims that that bloke threatened him this way: 'He said, ‘Who do you think you are,’ ” says Leo. “He then said, ‘You are banned from JAMA for life. You will be sorry. Your school will be sorry. Your students will be sorry." That's the story according to Leo. JAMA claims, not unexpectedly perhaps seeing the inappropriateness of this, that Leo's recollection of the conversation was incorrect.

Leo gets a second call from another editor at JAMA, someone even higher up than the first caller. Things didn't exactly improve... - Here's what the WSJ reports: 'The call from Fontanarosa was followed up by one from JAMA editor-in-chief Catherine DeAngelis to Leo’s superiors, Leo says. He said she asked his superiors to get him to retract his article in the BMJ. Leo says he decided to call DeAngelis directly to find out what, in particular, she might be objecting to. He said she was “very upset” but didn’t make specific complaints about the article. In a conversation with us, DeAngelis was none too happy to be questioned about the dust-up with Leo. “This guy is a nobody and a nothing” she said of Leo. “He is trying to make a name for himself. Please call me about something important.” She added that Leo “should be spending time with his students instead of doing this.”When asked if she called his superiors and what she said to them, DeAngelis said “it is none of your business.” She added that she did not threaten Leo or anyone at the school.'

So, clearly it's a he says - she says story but it's not insignificant that Leo seems to have received two critical calls from JAMA editors. As it turns out, however, his claims in his letter on the BMJ website were actually substantively correct.

Makes you wonder about JAMA's ethics standards. It is quite remarkable - in a bad way - to call a biomedical scientist who correctly flags the omission of an important conflict of interest disclosure with regard to a paper your journal published 'a nobody and a nothing'. Seriously, JAMA, you'd reconsider how you deal with such matters!

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