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Unethical Bioethicists?

Posted by Pete Shanks on February 10th, 2012


Questions are swirling around the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB). Exactly what is happening remains unclear, but Twitter is abuzz. University of Minnesota Bioethicist Leigh Turner, in particular, is loudly calling on the entire editorial board to resign, and he is picking up some support. Since the board, at least nominally, includes a virtual who's-who of bioethics, including 36 luminaries (read the list), this would be a very big deal.

The precipitating event here is that AJOB founder Glenn McGee, who boasts that Nature called him the "pioneer of bioethics on the Internet" has moved on, again. He launched the journal in 1999 when he was at the University of Pennsylvania, and took it with him when he moved in 2005 to the Alden March Bioethics Institute, and again when he left there three years later under a cloud of accusations (detailed in Scientific American) and moved to the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas, MO. There were questions then about the commercialization of bioethics, since his side business, which shares a website with the journal, was by then explicitly for-profit, but his latest move raises the stakes considerably: He's moved out of academia altogether, to take a position at Celltex Therapeutics in Houston.

Celltex is a stem-cell company, "the only Texas adult stem cell bank thus far," and set to benefit from freshly minted Texas rules about the use of treatments that have not been approved by the FDA. And they are partnered with RNLBio, the Korean company that is perhaps most notorious for dog cloning but, worse, was involved in the deaths of two patients.

(See "Stem cell graft, Texas-style" for details of RNLBio as the company that developed the procedure used to inject Texas governor Rick Perry with autologous stem cells last summer, and MSNBC's account of Perry pushing a bill through the legislature to authorize Celltex as a stem cell bank, a move it described as an example of "what critics view as his willingness to use the levers of state government to benefit friends and political benefactors.")

Meanwhile Bioethics.net, the for-profit online companion to AJOB, set up a page (now seemingly gone, but cached here) for "the Texas Association for Stem Cell Ethics and Policy."

McGee apparently realized that it might not look good for the editor of a bioethics journal to have as his day job supervising the ethics of a stem-cell company. So he turned his position as Editor-in-Chief over to his wife.* Really?

Well, the Co-Editors-in-Chief are now David Magnus, who has been involved for years, and Summer Johnson McGee, while Glenn is on the masthead as "Founder (Editor-in-Chief 1999-2012)." Which is a little odd, since he apparently took the job at Celltex at the beginning of December, but perhaps they're just catching up; the Info page was updated today. According to the weekly AJOB News email, the physical address changed from Kansas City to Houston in December (the Dec 9 email had the old address, later ones the new). And Summer Johnson McGee very rapidly acquired a position at Loyola, presumably in conjunction with the move to Texas that she and husband Glenn were making as he donned his private-sector hat.

As Leigh Turner points out on Twitter, it's a "big deal" to try "dodging COI [conflicts of interest] by handing editor hat to spouse." Moreover, there are suggestions that the AJOB editorial board knew nothing about the shift in leadership ahead of time. Is that true? If they didn't, why on earth not?

*Update: David Magnus told Inside Higher Ed that making Summer Johnson McGee Co-Editor was his idea.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Posted in Bioethics, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts


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  1. Comment by Pete Shanks, Feb 14th, 2012 12:32pm

    Thanks for the comment. We don't really disagree much. And it now seems that there has been "an attempt to backdate McGee’s resignation date as Editor-in-Chief of AJOB and scrub various websites" (http://www.healthintheglobalvillage.com/?p=616), which only raises more questions. Let's hope for definitive answers.


  2. Comment by Kevin T. Keith, Feb 10th, 2012 9:28pm

    This is a situation that bears looking into. The history of CellTex is fishy, as the article notes. The changes in AJOB's management, and the relationship of top figures at the journal to this commercial enterprise, should be carefully vetted. And, Glenn McGee's status as lightning rod is by now well-established, secured by his penchant for brazening through problems of his own creation without much self-critical judgment.

    But it's far too early to be coming to conclusions, let alone dictating precipitate sacrifices to a Board of well-respected professionals that hasn't had time to review the situation yet. (As to "why on earth not?", I would guess the answer is that, like most academic or academic-publishing boards, this one is staffed by volunteers giving up limited personal time; they likely rarely or never meet in person, and likely haven't had time over the academic winter break to coordinate a response to the situation.) Nothing about this case demands an instantaneous condemnation. It's fair to let the people who actually have responsibility for oversight of AJOB work through their process, and it's reasonable to trust them to be able to do so.

    Before rushing to judgement, we should also tease out the separate issues at hand. There are reasons to have reservations about CellTex and its overseas partners, but not all of those have anything to do with AJOB. Potentially corrupt actions by Rick Perry, and the dubious scientific worthiness of their underlying technology, cast doubts on CellTex, but do not prove that the company is so reprehensible that it is immoral to have any contact with it at all. Presumably, that is a determination that Glenn McGee has made, and will keep monitoring in his position as ethics officer. It is one that is open to criticism, too, but it is unfair to conclude that McGee is being dishonest or corrupt simply by taking the job.

    There is a question whether a journal can fairly comment on certain technologies or companies if its leading editors are (one way or another) connected to such companies, using such technologies. But the same complaint can be raised regarding editors' relationships with academic institutions or experimental protocols. There are at least as close relations between most journal editors and academic institutions as between journal editors and commercial companies; the mere fact of the latter is no more evidence of corruption than is the former. Direct conflicts of interest should be avoided, but there is no way for journals - especially journals staffed by academic experts in a given field - to avoid all contact with players in their fields of interest; in fact, they should not want to.

    As to the promotion of Summer McGee to co-editorship, that does raise questions of the true independence of her husband Glenn. But other sources have indicated that this was done at the direct request of David Magnus, who was asked to take on the sole editorship and insisted on Summer McGee's being involved. I think Magnus's stature in the field is such that no one would accuse him of agreeing to cover up some sort of underhanded conflict of interest. The situation also raises familiar questions of the career paths of academic spouses: the potential for conflict is obvious, but it is also unfair to assume one spouse (almost always a woman) must be shut out of opportunities because of the role of the other spouse.

    Finally, as to whether AJOB shares a web domain with a commercial enterprise, that also seems like a minor issue. It would smell better if they were separate, but the fact that they co-exist by itself means little. It is no secret that Glenn McGee was the founder and promoter of AJOB, and it is no mark against him that he hoped to make money on it, or related enterprises. Most academic journals are in fact for-profit enterprises. Possibly the board should now consider ways to formally insulate AJOB from McGee's paid relationship with a different for-profit company, but that is a perfectly ordinary matter of business law - not a scandal or a crisis.

    In short, there are real reasons to wonder about ethical conflicts in this situation, but relatively few that have serious implications for AJOB. Whatever is going on with CellTex and their questionable political and business associations is CellTex's - and now Glenn McGee's - problem. The relationship between Glenn McGee and AJOB, and any possible conflicts between AJOB's editorial independence and his search for income from AJOB or his new paid position, can be worked out through appropriate financial and editorial oversight, as many businesses do. The journal seems to be under effective and respected editorial leadership; I would think the new editors deserve a chance to prove themselves. The idea that Summer McGee is merely serving as a proxy for Glenn McGee, and worse, acting to further his conflicted interests in the journal, is both unfounded, as far as is apparently known now, and insulting. The idea that the board of leading figures in bioethics cannot figure out and address these issues seems strained. And the demand that they must all immediately resign without attempting to address them, or that these fairly minor personnel matters are somehow an ethical scandal beyond their capacity to manage, seems both unfair and unreasonable. In fact, it seems like a hyperbolic reaction to the lurid stories about CellTex, rather than a considered response to the relatively simple issues facing AJOB.

    Not for the first time, Glen McGee has let a management issue embroil him in controversies that could have been more easily handled openly from the start. But nothing very dramatic has really happened. It is fair to all involved - both the principals and the oversight board - for outsiders to calm down and let things take their course. At the very least, the board of directors should undertake a measured but serious review of the situation, and should be given time to do so. There is no reason to think they cannot manage this issue by exercising their inherent responsibilities in a reasonable way.


 


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