JAMA editors take strong stance against conflict of interest and free speech 5

In an editorial posted online in JAMA, the editors Catherine DeAngelis and Phil Fontanarosa have taken a strong stance against both conflict of interest and free speech. According to the editorial, it’s ok to accuse JAMA authors of conflict of interest, but you can’t tell anyone except the journal editors until the editors themselves report their final determination of guilt or innocence. We can’t go into all the details here, but you can read Wall Street Journal reporter David Armstrong’s account in a story in Monday’s edition.

We initially became aware of the controversy a little over a week ago, when Armstrong first reported in the Wall Street Journal Health Blog a nasty exchange he had had with the JAMA editors about their thuggish efforts to silence a critic who had published a letter in BMJ criticizing a JAMA author’s conflict of interest. We labelled the  incident a “demolition derby,” as the JAMA editors seemed bent on a course of self-destruction in their single-minded efforts to place JAMA above the level of criticism. The new editorial represents the editors’ efforts to make their best case, but it appears likely their effort will backfire. In an attempt to justify their words and actions they have only made their postion worse.

Just one detail: in their editorial the editors deny that they called the critic “a nobody and a nothing,” though they admit that their “tone in these interactions was strong and emphatic.” I’m sure if they were writing an editorial they wouldn’t have used those words, but I’ll trust a respected reporter to get his quotes right. More importantly, read beyond the formal language and it’s hard not to catch the accent of the Godfather:

Leo also was informed that, if his actions represented his apparent lack of confidence in and regard for JAMA, he certainly should not plan to submit future manuscripts or letters for publication.

Update (March 23, 12:30 PM):

Armstrong has updated and provided  additional perspective on this incident in a new post on the Wall Street Journal Health Blog. The post also contains a link to a statement by Jonathan Leo, the researcher who first reported the conflict of interest issue and wrote the letter to BMJ. Leo concludes his statement with a provocative idea about the implications of this incident:

What began as a short (and potentially obscure) letter about undisclosed COI has now led to questions about the limits of institutional authority in the medical publishing industry, the extent of academic freedom, and even the role of the First Amendment.