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Sackings put editorial freedom on the spot

Nature volume 440, pages 1011 (02 March 2006) | Download Citation

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Owners of medical journal deny editors fired for political reasons.

The abrupt sacking of two editors of a medical journal has been blamed on political differences between them and the journal's owners. With the editorial board fighting to have the two reinstated, the case has focused attention on the issue of editorial freedom for journals owned by academic societies.

John Hoey, former editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), and his deputy Anne Marie Todkill were sacked on 20 February. Since then, 16 of 18 editorial board members have signed a letter asking the CMA to reinstate them. But Graham Morris, president of CMA Media, the company that publishes the journal, denies his decision had anything to do with editorial freedom. “Hoey did a good job in building the reputation of the journal,” says Morris, adding that he is simply looking for “a fresh approach”.

“I think it is extremely damaging for the reputation of the journal.”

But Hoey and Morris have often locked horns. For example, Hoey ran an editorial in the 3 January 2006 issue detailing changes he says he was forced to make to an article about emergency contraception. As part of a news story on whether pharmacists were asking users unnecessary questions before dispensing the ‘Plan B’ pill, the CMAJ asked women across Canada to buy the pill from local pharmacies and report their experiences. According to Hoey, the Canadian Pharmacists' Association pressured the CMA into insisting that the investigation could not be published without peer review. Morris says he wasn't influenced by the pharmacists, and that the decision to remove the section about the investigation left a “well-balanced” piece.

There were also deep-seated differences between the journal editors and the CMA over privatization of health care, according to Trudo Lemmens, a medical ethicist at the University of Toronto. In August, the CMA voted to support a Supreme Court ruling that ended the ban on private health care in Quebec. The CMAJ however, is perceived to be against any erosion of the nation's public medical system. According to Hoey, a news story on incoming health minister Tony Clemens, which included critical quotes about Clemens's acceptance of privatization was pulled by the management.

Jerome Kassirer, a member of the CMAJ's editorial board, points out that the journal has been doing well, making Morris's call for a change seem oddly timed: “Given that the journal was getting better, was more respected, and its impact factor was going up, it's hard to escape the conclusion that they were fired for political reasons.”

Fiona Godlee, editor of the British Medical Journal, says she was “shocked and saddened” by the news. She worries that the CMAJ may now recede into relative obscurity. “I think it is extremely damaging for the reputation of the journal.”

Godlee hopes the firings will stiffen the resolve of journal editors to fight for a strong wall between their editorial content and the politics of home associations. “It is beholden on editors in general to hold the line for the sake of maintaining independent scientific voices around the world.”

Also “very concerned” about the sackings is Shabbir Alibhai, a specialist in cancer and geriatrics at the University of Toronto and member of the CMAJ's reader panel. But Alibhai says the episode raises questions about the role of journal editors, particularly when writing editorials. “Who is the editor representing when he or she pens words?” he asks. “The readers? The association? The journal? Or just the editors?”

Meanwhile editorial board member Philip Devereaux is widely distributing a petition to reinstate the editors. “This is one of the most fundamental battles, and it must be fought,” he says. “It's not just because John and Anne Marie are really nice people.”

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https://doi.org/10.1038/440010b

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