Medical journal fracas makes everyone look bad

Depending on your point of view, what’s been going on at the Canadian
Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) is either a strange squabble between the
academic elite and their bosses or a tense drama about freedom of the press
and the role science plays in the media.
Sign me up for the latter.

Vol. 7 No. 20
March 08, 2006
Science Matters
by David Suzuki
It started last month when two editors of CMAJ, Canada’s leading medical
journal, were abruptly fired by the publisher. The journal’s editorial
board promptly wrote a letter to the publisher requesting that they be
reinstated. In the meantime, an acting editor was hired. He agreed to take
the position, but only if the publisher accepted a governance plan that
would ensure he and his staff would maintain their editorial freedom. A
week later, he quit. One can only guess why.
It turns out that the original editor, John Hoey, and the publisher, CMA
Holdings, have been engaged in an increasingly public battle over editorial
independence. In a January 3, 2006, editorial, Dr. Hoey wrote: “While the
Dec. 6, 2005, issue was in preparation, the editorial independence of the
journal was compromised when a CMA executive objected strenuously to a news
article we were preparing on behind-the-counter access to emergency
levonorgestrel (Plan B). The objection was made in response to a complaint
from the Canadian Pharmacists Association, who had learned about the
article when they were interviewed by our reporters. The CMA’s objection
was conveyed to CMAJ’s editors, and to our publisher, who subsequently
instructed us to withhold the article.”
The publisher denies firing Dr. Hoey because of his actions, and instead
wrote in a letter posted on the CMAJ website, that it was merely looking
for a “fresh approach.” Others say that the recent resignation of the
acting editor is proof that Dr. Hoey was fired for his insistence on
editorial freedom.
It gets stranger. In response to the firings, an ad-hoc committee of the
editorial board published a commentary piece entitled Editorial autonomy of
CMAJ, again on the journal’s website. In it, the committee reviewed the
events leading up to Dr. Hoey’s firing and concluded: “We view the episodes
as raising serious concern about the integrity of the journal, its
reputation, and its viability in the community of top medical journals.”
This is on the journal’s own website. Talk about dirty laundry!
On one hand, such a public airing of grievances could be said to be
beneficial to maintaining public trust in important institutions such as
the CMAJ because it lays all the cards on the table. On the other hand, it
could be said to be making matters worse by making internal squabbles
public and decreasing public trust in journals, research, and science in
One can only hope that something good comes out of this mess. It would be
naive to think that the CMAJ’s tension between management and editorial
staff is an isolated incident. Indeed, with so much research being funded
by corporations with a profit motive, and journals relying increasing on
advertising, the issue of editorial independence is becoming more and more
Editorial freedom in a science journal, as in the media in general, is
essential. With science journals, this freedom must be especially
transparent, as editorial interference could have profound repercussions.
Based on information from the CMAJ website, the publisher of the journal
appears to have crossed the line on more than one occasion.
Let’s hope this is sorted out before the CMAJ is relegated to the
backwaters of journal rankings. It deserves better. A warning published on
the journal website by the editorial committee says as much, although it is
overly optimistic: “In our view, any attempt by the CMA to impose its
influence on the editors would be catastrophic for the CMAJ’s reputation as
well as damaging to the reputation of the CMA.”
It’s a little late for that.
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