Researchers boycott journal

Contributors cry foul play after the publisher refuses to include a controversial article

By | June 23, 2004

Researchers slated to contribute to a November issue of an occupational medicine journal have withdrawn their submissions in a boycott stemming from the publication's refusal to include a study in the same issue claiming that IBM employees at semiconductor plants have higher-than-expected cancer death rates.

According to the study, which The Scientist has obtained, employees were more likely than the general population to die of brain, skin, lymphatic, and hematopoietic tissue cancers. The paper had been peer reviewed before acceptance.

"Everyone has just shut down," said Joe LaDou, the guest editor of the November issue of Clinics in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. LaDou, of the University of California School of Medicine at San Francisco, told The Scientist that the trouble began after he told the journal he wanted to include the study, headed by Richard Clapp of the Boston University School of Public Health, in the issue, which was concentrating on health issues related to the electronics industry. "And almost immediately, they rejected the paper," he said.

In response, LaDou contacted all contributors and asked them to agree to withdraw their articles until the journal says it will publish the paper. All agreed. He said that the journal has given contributors until the end of June to submit their work.

Marike Westra, a spokesperson for Elsevier, which publishes the journal, told The Scientist that the Clapp paper was not considered for publication because it was an original work, and the journal publishes only review papers. "Elsevier was never asked to block publication of this article by IBM, and IBM has confirmed this publicly," Westra said in an email.

Chris Andrews, a spokesperson for IBM, explained that Clapp gained access to the company's mortality data as part of a recently resolved court case in California between IBM and former employees diagnosed with cancer. Clapp, an epidemiologist, was asked to review the data and testify on behalf of the plaintiffs. However, the judge eventually forbade Clapp from testifying, and the plaintiffs lost the case earlier this year.

"There's no evidence that any workers' illnesses were caused by their work at IBM," Andrews told The Scientist.

Andrews added that Clapp signed a confidentiality agreement as part of the court case, and publishing this paper would violate the terms of that agreement.

According to The Observer, IBM is currently facing litigation from over 250 previous employees.

Clapp told The Scientist that his lawyers say publishing the paper would not violate the terms of his confidentiality agreement. And if Clinics won't publish the paper, he "absolutely" plans to submit it elsewhere, he said.

Clapp explained that people working with semiconductors are exposed to known carcinogens, like benzene and trichloroethylene, or TCE. "It was disappointing" when he learned the journal decided not to publish his findings, he said.

Robert Harrison, of the University of California, San Francisco, was slated to contribute an article on medical monitoring to the journal, but told The Scientist he had no hesitation about withholding his work. As a practitioner of occupational medicine, he said Clapp's data could help doctors who treat anyone who has worked with these chemicals, and not just at IBM.

The paper is "part of the body of knowledge that we want to get across to healthcare providers who might be seeing patients in the semiconductor and electronics industries," Harrison said.

Harrison said that this is one of the first papers to highlight the health hazards of the semiconductor industry, which continues to employ many workers, now especially from developing countries.

Daniel Teitelbaum, a consultant in occupational medicine and toxicology who testified for the plaintiffs in the California case, said that it was not so easy for him to decide to withhold his research from the journal. But in the end, he agreed with his fellow contributors. "To me, it's really a simple issue of academic freedom," he said.

Correction (posted June 24): When originally posted, the first paragraph of this story identified the plants in question as superconductor plants, rather than semiconductor plants. The Scientist regrets the error.

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