Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Australian Academics' Confused Responses to Sacking of Medical Journal of Australia Editor

The Board of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) fired yet another Editor in Chief of its flagship publication, the Medical Journal of Australia.  Australian public health icon Stephen Leeder is the latest victim of the AMA's shenanigans. The MJA, like the Canadian Medical Association Journal, is by and large an also-run kind of academic publication. Doctors in those countries get a free copy by virtue of their membership in the association, it's doubtful that they do much more than check job ads and perhaps read the odd editorial during a break. Nobody would seriously expect cutting edge medical research findings of international significance published in these sorts of publication. However, they do serve an important role as regional medical publications.

Often these journals are run in manners that can best be described as unprofessional, by the associations that own them. There are plenty of examples of interference with the editorial independence of editors by these associations, the half-life of editors appointed by them is typically low, too.

For some reason good people continue to apply for these positions, only to be shafted at the next unexpected opportunity. What happened this time around? Apparently the AMA, behind Leeder's back, decided to outsource the production of the journal to international publishing behemoth Elsevier. Elsevier is publisher of illustrious publications among medical journals that you will have actually heard of before, such as for instance The Lancet. Like most international publishing houses Elsevier has a dreadful reputation among academics, mostly for its price gauging (ask your librarian in case you have doubts about this claim), but also for a range of deeply unethical activities such as creating fake medical journals to promote particular drugs for pharmaceutical companies.

It is not at all unreasonable for Leeder to not want to be involved with Elsevier and leave (or get fired by the AMA if he refuses to leave). The same is true for the members of the journal's Editorial Advisory Committee who also resigned bar one (someone looking for an Editor-in-Chief job by any chance?). And yes, Leeder had good reason to question  the decision and should have resigned in a huff over the shenanigans that happened mostly behind his back. Folks are also correct to be upset about the AMA's decision to go to bed with Elsevier, of all commercial publishers that would have been willing to take over the production of the journal. Fair enough criticism.

For some reason in Down Under this is also debated as a threat to editorial independence. Reports the Sydney Morning Herald, 'one of the signatories, Professor Gary Wittert, the head of medicine at Adelaide University, said AMPCo's track record in sacking editors, including Dr Annette Katelaris in 2012, and its commercial arrangements with Elsevier "does not inspire confidence in editorial independence".' This charge clearly doesn't stick. As of today there is no evidence that Elsevier interferes with the editorial independence (ie the published content) of its editors. It is as simple as that.

A bunch of Australian academics that wrote to the AMA Board to criticise the decision also lamented that The Lancet has published a controversial piece about goings-on in Gaza as well as a controversial paper on vaccines and autism that it failed to retract for about a decade. That is about as bizarre a complaint as it gets. Here the publisher is in effect held accountable for non-interference with its journal editor's editorial independence, and that is also held against it by these academics. Medical journal editors in days gone by were crusaders for particular causes (in the current Lancet editor's case it's global health), and they were expected to write and publish sharply worded editorials with a view to changing the world of health. In this instance Australian academics think that's another reason why the AMA called it wrongly, they don't want to see their journal being produced by a publisher that respects its editors doing precisely that. In any case, it is worth repeating that Elsevier wouldn't even have that sort of oversight in the case of the MJA, because it's not that the journal is being sold to the company, only its production is outsourced to it.

The owners of journals are well within their rights to change the production modi of their journals. They can even outsource the production to international publishing houses (eg in bioethics the Hastings Center's Hastings Center Report is these days produced to some extent by Wiley, with zero impact on the publication's editorial independence). Editors are well within their rights to protest such decisions and to resign (or face the chop) if they ultimately do not wish to go along with such commercial decisions. A threat to editorial independence such decisions are not.

One would expect senior academics to appreciate these differences.

1 comment:

  1. AnonymousMay 06, 2015

    Your statement, "A bunch of Australian academics that wrote to the AMA Board to criticise the decision also lamented that The Lancet has published a controversial piece about goings-on in Gaza as well as a controversial paper on vaccines and autism that it failed to retract for about a decade" is incorrect. A statement regarding the delayed retraction of the Autism paper was made by Paul Zimmet when speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald. The statement regarding the letter about Gaza was made by the author of the newspaper article.

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