Scientific journal threatened by vested interests

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Article critical of corporate-funded research retracted

Cover of IJEOH
A paper by the previous editor of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, critical of corporate funding of research, has been retracted by the new editor.
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The International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health (IJEOH) is a peer-reviewed international journal that has been publishing important scientific manuscripts on occupational and environmental health hazards, policy and prevention since 1995.

The IJOEH developed a reputation for publishing articles that provided a critical analysis of the existing status quo in the field and in promoting access for developing country scientists to raise questions about occupational and environmental health risks through publishing in the journal. A number of well-researched and meticulously referenced papers raised questions about corporate influence on the standards of practice and scientific literature in our field and voiced criticisms of national and international agencies for failing to prevent conflict of interest in their outputs.

In 2015, the then-publisher, Maney, was bought out by the big publishing house Taylor and Francis. Taylor and Francis publish a range of scientific journals in the health field, including Global Public Health, Reproductive Health Matters and the Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health. It is a well-established academic publisher.

Towards the end of 2016, the publishers replaced the existing editor, David Egilman with a new appointment without any consultation with the existing Editorial Board. The new editor, Dr Andrew Maier, is known to be a consultant to industry. No reasons were given for this choice by the publisher. On 11 February, 29 current and former Editorial Board members wrote to the publisher to express their concern about the lack of transparency and the inappropriateness of the appointment of Dr Maier, as follows:

We are writing, first of all, to fully inquire about the process you followed in the selection of Dr. Maier. Secondly, we request your confirmation that all contributions that were accepted under Dr. Egilman’s editorship shall soon be published as accepted in IJOEH. And third, we want to know what assurance the publisher can possibly offer to readers around the world, who have come to admire and rely on this journal, that it has not just been subjected to a corporate takeover.

Andrew Kelley, Managing Editor at Taylor and Francis did not answer the questions directly, but offered, at short notice, to host a video conference call at which he would introduce the new editor to the Editorial Board, and address the three questions posed in the letter. The questions remain unanswered.

Maier is well-known as a researcher whose interpretation of data is highly sympathetic to industry. For example, a paper by Maier published in another journal, Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, concluded with a recommendation for occupational exposure limits for the chemical diacetyl that were 20 to 40 times more lax than exposure limits recommended by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), respectively. Egilman analysed Maier’s study, and published his own critique that highlighted how Maier had discarded epidemiologic data. Egilman concluded that when human data were taken account of, the recommended exposure limit should be even lower than that proposed by the ACGIH and NIOSH.

Diacetyl is a food additive widely used in the food industry, particularly to generate the butter aroma and taste in microwave popcorn. It has been implicated in causing particularly aggressive lung disease among exposed workers and is carefully regulated in the US as a result.

The discrepancy between Egilman’s analysis and Maier’s analysis of the same scientific question – what are safe limits of exposure to diacetyl? – could not be more stark. Maier presented his analysis as an “Independent Toxicology Assessment for Diacetyl” conducted by his organisation Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA) which he characterised as a “non-profit organisation dedicated to the best use of toxicity data for risk values.” Yet, TERA has a long history of working for a range of industries, particularly the petrochemical and related industries (including the American Petroleum Institute) but also Eli Lilly, the American Cleaning Institute (formerly called the Soap and Detergent Association), Procter & Gamble, and the Nickel Producers Environmental Research Association. Elsewhere, the appointment of TERA to key policy making processes (e.g. the decision in 2007 by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to weaken restrictions on a range of chemicals; and the findings of a Commission investigating chemical spills into the Elk River in Virginia in 2014) have been met with a widespread concern over TERA’s conflicts of interest to the point that TERA has been labelled by one university academic as “whitewashing the work of industry.”

So, is this situation - Maier in, Egilman out - a case of the wolf guarding the sheep? Pointedly, the journal, again in March 2017, without consulting its editorial board, and without giving any reasons, withdrew a paper that Egilman had written, which had been through peer review and had been accepted for publication in the IJOEH. The publishers claimed that the paper had not been subject to “our in house review prior to its publication” and that after an internal review by the publishers, it was deemed “unsuitable for publication in the journal.” To the previous editors’ knowledge, the journal had never previously required any ‘in-house review’ and certainly not by the publisher. An alternative explanation would seem to lie in the fact that the paper was a critique of industry influence on another occupational health risk – since it was titled The production of corporate research to manufacture doubt about the health hazards of products: an overview of the Exponent Bakelite simulation study (here is the withdrawal notice). Such an analysis did not appear to sit comfortably with the new direction being taken by the journal and would explain its ‘unsuitability’.

Concerned at the evident behind-closed-doors restructuring and decision-making in the journal, all 22 current Editorial Board members and 9 former Editorial Board members wrote to the Chief Executive Officer of Taylor and Francis, Roger Horton, to voice their “grave concerns” and to call on Horton to either reinstate Egilman as IJOEH editor, or to recognize the power to choose a successor as resting rightfully with the Editorial Board; commit to ensuring prompt publication of all already-accepted papers; recognize the involvement of the Editorial Board along with Journal Editor prior to any decision to retract published papers to ensure accepted procedures for scientific journals are followed; and not interfere in any decisions about Editorial Board membership, leaving that to the Editor-in-Chief and the Editorial Board rather than allow the publishing company to decide. Horton replied that he was about to retire and referred the matter to another Taylor and Francis executive.

What this struggle represents is a growing phenomenon in scientific publication – the corporatisation of journals and the ascendency of corporate interests over independent science in the public interest. South Africa’s history of contestation over scientific evidence during our period of AIDS denialism has taught us that science can be a staunch lever for equity and justice in face of vested interests. Just as we said no to former-President Mbeki’s attempts to subvert science to ideology, we must also stand up against science being commercialised to serve corporate interests at the expense of people’s health.

London is a professor in the University of Cape Town’s School of Public Health.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

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TOPICS:  Science