The JBI saga continues
Regular readers of this blog will recall my writing about a deeply unpleasant episode in which the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry wrote some unfounded allegations about unethical behaviour by Dianthus Medical, which, after extensive correspondence, they refused to correct. I first wrote about it here, and linked briefly here to a much more detailed account written by my friend Karen Shashok and published on the EMWA website.
The chairman of the editorial board of the journal, Paul Komesaroff, has now responded to Shashok’s article, and his response has been published on the EWMA website. Komesaroff’s response is not concordant with my own understanding of what happened. In this post, I shall explain what really happened with reference to the actual content of the emails that were exchanged, so that you can make your own mind up about the accuracy of what Komesaroff claims.
Komesaroff begins his response by saying “In science and scientific writing the first rule is to ensure that the facts you are reporting are correct”. On that point, at least, we agree. However, Komesaroff doesn’t have a good record of living up to that ideal, as he has consistently refused to correct the article that appeared in his journal which falsely accused us of ghostwriting.
Let’s look at some of the specific points Komesaroff makes. He makes a great many points, some of which are not particularly important, and if I attempted to respond to every single one this blog post would become unreadably long. So I’ll concentrate on the most egregious inaccuracies. Actually, this is going to be quite a long post anyway, but I hope you’ll bear with me, because I think it’s important to put the record straight.
In the introduction to his response, he says that I threatened to take legal action for libel and refused to withdraw that threat. While it is true that I raised the possibility of legal action in some of my earlier emails with Springer, the publisher of the journal, I subsequently make it perfectly clear that I had decided not to go down that route.
Once I realised that Komesaroff believed I was making legal threats (he didn’t actually tell me this himself, but I learned about it second hand as a result of correspondence between Komesaroff and Karen Shashok) and that he was using this as a reason not to correspond with me, I sent the following email on 18 July 2011:
Dear Dr Komesaroff
I think there may have been a misunderstanding here. I gather from correspondence with Karen Shashok that you are under the impression that I am threatening legal action, and that it is the threat of legal action that is inhibiting you from engaging in discussion.
I'm not sure why you believed that to be true, but I'm happy to confirm that I have no plans to take legal action.
Now that we've cleared that up, are you willing to discuss the article?
In the light of that email, I’m sure you can make up your own mind about the truth of Komesaroff’s claim that I made a threat of legal action which I refused to withdraw.
Moving on to the section of his response entitled “The facts of the matter”, point 6 says that the original article in JBI did not make any claims about unethical conduct by Dianthus Medical. That is rather disingenuous. While it is true that the article did not use the precise words “unethical conduct”, that was the clear implication of the article. We are accused of ghostwriting, and most people understand that to be unethical. Moreover, the description of ghostwriting in the paper leads the reader in little doubt that it is not a good thing:
“A ghostwriter includes messages to maximize the marketing power of the publication while one or more “honorary” academic authors lend their names, titles, and purported independence to the paper (Moffat and Elliott 2007). While the audience may look suspiciously on a paper with an all-corporate authorship line, the presence of an academic author lends the air of independence and prestige, making the article appear more credible. The academic authors may review an outline or draft, but typically perform little writing.”
In point 9, Komesaroff claims that I was asked which statements in the article needed to be corrected and that I “consistently refused to identify a single false, inaccurate, or misleading statement”. I disagree. Komesaroff emailed me on 19 July 2011 to ask what specifically I thought was wrong with the article. I replied to him the next day with the following email:
Dear Dr Komesaroff
I can assure you that I am most certainly genuinely interested in resolving my concerns, so I am happy to answer your questions.
The claims in Spielmans & Parry's article that I object to are in the section entitled "Writing firms", on the 6th page of the pdf version of the article.
The first paragraph of that section mentions my company specifically by name, as an example of the sort of company that indulges in ghostwriting. The following paragraph then states:
"The process is relatively simple: A ghostwriter includes messages to maximize the marketing power of the publication while one or more “honorary” academic authors lend their names, titles, and purported independence to the paper (Moffat and Elliott 2007). While the audience may look suspiciously on a paper with an all-corporate authorship line, the presence of an academic author lends the air of independence and prestige, making the article appear more credible. The academic authors may review an outline or draft, but typically perform little writing."
Although it's not explicitly stated that my company operates in that manner, by following the paragraph in which my company is mentioned with that statement there is a clear implication that that is how we write our papers. I'm sure that any reasonable reader would infer (assuming they believe the article to be accurate) that the description of ghostwriting given above applies specifically to my company.
You mention the letter that I published. There are three reasons why I don't believe that to be sufficient. First, the letter is not bibliographically linked to the original article via the journal's website. It would be perfectly possible for anyone to read the original article without being aware that my letter exists. Second, Spielmans and Parry wrote a reply to my letter in which they made further allegations, and the journal did not give me an opportunity to respond to those allegations. Thirdly, I think it's rather bad form of a peer-reviewed journal to publish a paper which makes up allegations on the basis of supposition, rather than evidence, and any journal with the word "ethical" in its title should surely wish to publish an apology in such circumstances.
What I would now like to happen is for the journal to publish an apology and a correction to the article, bibliographically linked to the original article, so that it would be clear from the article's web page that the correction exists. As I am sure you will have seen in previous correspondence, Spielmans and Parry agreed to some wording of a correction that they would find acceptable (I attach a copy in case you no longer have it to hand). When the authors themselves agree that a correction to the article is appropriate, I cannot see any reason why the journal would not wish to publish it.
I look forward to your response.
Komesaroff apparently does not believe that the above email identifies “a single false, inaccurate, or misleading statement.” I think that email was perfectly clear about exactly what I thought was misleading in the article. If Komesaroff thought that my email wasn’t sufficiently clear, he could have emailed me back to say so, but instead he emailed back to say that he was not prepared to engage in any further correspondence.
In the final paragraph of his “The facts of the matter” section, he states that I “admit that no errors have been committed”. Given the email I quoted above, I’ll leave you to make up your own mind about the truth of that statement.
This whole episode is bizarre. The journal published some unfounded allegations against us. That’s not hugely bizarre. Many papers containing statements that didn’t get thorough fact-checking are published in peer reviewed journals. What is bizarre has been the journal’s response when the error was pointed out. Surely a reputable journal would wish to publish a correction when it is pointed out that they have published a misleading article? This should be particularly true when the authors of the article themselves agreed that they had no evidence for the allegations and have agreed that a correction (although they preferred to describe it as a “clarification”) would be appropriate.
But instead, Komesaroff has invented a fictitious threat of legal action as a reason to break off any discussion of the article. That threat did not exist, as I have proved above. But even if it did, I cannot understand why it would make it OK for the journal to allow a misleading article to stand uncorrected. Surely the important thing is the accuracy of the published record?