Issue 19 / 25 May 2015

“TO be an editor is to live dangerously”, wrote Dr Martin Van Der Weyden, former editor of the MJA after completing his tenure at the journal in 2011.

In an article setting out some of the attempts by interested parties to influence content in the journal on his watch (covering everything from medical euthanasia to timing of vertebroplasty), Dr Van Der Weyden mounted a passionate defence of editorial independence, describing it as “crucial for the viability of a journal”.

“At the outset, editors understand that they will be subjected to a myriad of pressures, including those from the journal’s owners, whether these be commercial publishers or professional organisations”, he wrote.

A good editor, he concluded, must have many enemies.

The history of medical publishing is littered with editors who, unlike Dr Van Der Weyden, did not survive, instead seeing their tenures summarily ended after coming into conflict with the proprietors of their journals.

In 1999, Dr George Lundberg was sacked as editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association after he published a report concluding US college students did not consider oral sex to be “having sex”.

His decision to fast track publication so that the report’s appearance coincided with the impeachment of President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair outraged the journal’s proprietor, the American Medical Association.

An association spokesman said Dr Lundberg had “threatened the historical tradition and integrity of JAMA by inappropriately and inexcusably interjecting [it] into a major political debate that has nothing to do with science or medicine”.

Less sensationally perhaps, that same year, Dr Jerome Kassirer’s contract as editor of the New England Journal of Medicine was not renewed after he disputed plans by his journal’s owner, the Massachussetts Medical Society, to use the journal’s brand to promote other commercial ventures.

Commenting on Dr Kassirer’s forced retirement, Dr John Hoey, then editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, wrote: “It is easy for marketing and its sometime accomplice, greed, to slip under an editor’s door”.

While acknowledging medical journals needed to be profitable, or at least break even, if they were to survive, Dr Hoey argued a commitment to quality and independence was central to achieving this.

“… any honest intellectual enterprise must proceed on the optimistic and disinterested premise that excellence is not only its own reward but is also the best guarantor of healthy circulation figures”, he wrote.

Those lofty ideals did not work out so well for Dr Hoey himself, who was dismissed in 2006 amid allegations his journal’s owner, the Canadian Medical Association, had repeatedly sought to influence editorial content.

A lot has changed in the publishing world since 2006 — and even more so since 1999 — though summary dismissals of medical journal editors are still with us, as anyone who has not had their head in the sand these last few weeks will know.

Tensions between editorial staff and proprietors are only likely to increase as publications of all kinds face unprecedented financial pressures in our age of digital disruption.

The economic models that have long supported scholarly and general publishing — principally advertising and subscriptions — are broken.

And, in a world where content is increasingly expected to be free, we have yet to find new financial models to replace them.

The potential disappearance of platforms to publish high-quality, independent research — and high-quality, independent journalism, for that matter — poses an incalculable threat to the maintenance of a healthy, just and equitable human society.

Publishing companies undoubtedly need to find new and creative solutions if they are to survive but, if they walk away from longstanding commitments to quality and independence, they risk ending up with something that was not worth the effort of saving.
 

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Declaration: Jane McCredie has in the past worked as a consultant to Elsevier on its digital platforms and for Reed Elsevier as a journalist on Australian Doctor.

4 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Saving quality

  1. Richard Smith says:

    Jane McCredie lists only North American editors who have been fired, joining many Australian editors. In contrast, in more than 300 years no editors of the Lancet or BMJ have been fired. Yet, as an ex-editor of the BMJ, I  suggest that the editors of the Lancet and the BMJ ( Thomas Wakely, Robbie Fox, Richard Horton, Ernest Hart, Fiona Godlee) have ben much bolder than the editors in North America and Australia. Why might this be? Thre might be a PhD in it.

  2. Claire Hooker says:

    An excellent article, until the last paragraph. Academic publishers are under no economic threat. Instead, the exploit the free labour of authors and reviewers and the academic system that assigns value to some journals more than others, to post massive profits. Elsevier, the publisher whose refusal to grant editorial independence led to Leeder’s sacking as editor of the MJA, posted profits around 36% … ie it competes with large fossil fuel corporations for profitability. In the past the conglomerate of which Elsevier is a part sold weapons – that was its idea of a ‘new and creative’ solution to ‘survive’ (where ‘survive’ means ‘generate obscene profits for shareholders and high salaried CEOs’). And there already is a creative solution that’s actually ethical: ‘green’ open access, in which the knowledge commons is preserved by library subscriptions that go only to support the incidental administrative costs of journals whose authors and reviewers still work for free – but where the published articles are also free for all, without the double dipping of ‘article processing fees’. 

  3. Deborah H Yates says:

    Editorial independence is essential to a vigorous healthy journal and we outside the publishing world (but among those who freely contribute to medical journals) watched with sadness at the interference of outside management in a doctors’ journal. Management do not seem to understand the spirit which motivates people to contribute freely and which values intellectual endeavour over profit. We do not expect a medical journal to make money. That is not what it is for. We do not expect a medical journal to publish only anodyne opinions, nor an editor to be forced to be subservient to management. We value controversy and informed discussion, and we are grateful to the MJA editors and contributors for providing this to date.

    “Market forces” now dictate that we will send our work elsewhere, and review for other journals. Medicine is a community of individuals who have values other than money.

  4. Sue Ieraci says:

    Thanks for the article, Jane. I agree with comments about the need for both editorial courage and editorial independence.

    Academic publishing has changed in many ways in recent decades. Paper-based journals that were read almost exclusively by an interested and informed specialist group have been replaced (or supplemented) by internet-based publishing and wide accessibility. With growth of circulation and advertising, production processes may have become more complex, and financial aims may have changed. These changes can (indeed, must) be accommodated, without interfering with the editorial role. In the midst of an astronomical amount of pseudo-science and plain rubblish disguised as science now available on the internet, we need to preserve the quality content available in trustworthy medical journals.

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