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Incident raises questions of editors' and publishers' corporate connections

By | April 29, 2005

If you don't like getting your paper rejected before it even reaches peer review, ask David Egilman how to get around it: In what may be an unprecedented move, when the Brown University researcher's paper was recently rejected from an occupational medicine journal, he simply bought two pages of ad space and printed the entire article in the same journal.

Two years ago, Egilman submitted an editorial to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM) that critiqued a 2003 Dow-funded paper in Texas Medicine that said 11 cases of mesothelioma among Dow workers exposed to asbestos did not "suggest an occupational etiology"—even though mesothelioma typically strikes only 1 to 2 people per million, Egilman said.

He received an E-mail with comments from editor Paul Brandt-Rauf, who said the material was "not likely to be a high priority for the majority of JOEM readers."

Egilman told The Scientist he believed the article was rejected unfairly, and he wanted to "see what would happen" if he submitted the rejected paper as an advertisement. When he did, it was published in its entirety as a two-page ad in JOEM, along with his survey asking if readers believed this material was a "priority" to them. Egilman said he chose to publish the paper as an advertisement in JOEM, rather than get it peer reviewed at another journal, because he became more interested in finding out if the paper was interesting to JOEM readers.

Egilman said he received 33 responses to the survey, all saying the material was of interest. "I was testing [Brandt-Rauf's] assertion, in a semi-scientific way," he said.

Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, said he had never heard of a researcher who published a paper as an ad in the journal that rejected it. He told The Scientist the incident raises a number of issues, such as only the "haves" being able to publish their work. "And if it's an ad, what's it an ad for?" asked Rennie, also a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. "The research? The idea? The author?"

Brandt-Rauf, who is based at Columbia University in New York, told The Scientist that the paper was rejected on its own lack of merits and not out of any allegiance to Dow. He said that his note saying the material was not a "priority" was a stock rejection response and that the journal gives preference to original research. Approximately 25% of JOEM submissions are rejected before peer review, he said. Brandt-Rauf added he was surprised by Egilman's reaction.

"I don't know where he gets this idea that he gets to publish anything he wants in the journal of his choice," Brandt-Rauf said. "If that were true, I'd publish all of my pieces in Nature and Science."

Brandt-Rauf noted that he normally reviews advertisements before they are published, but could not in this instance because Egilman's paper replaced another ad that was cancelled at the last minute. If he had, he would have removed the ad—but not out of allegiance to Dow, which, to his knowledge, has never given money to him or the journal.

However, according to an editorial in the April/June 2005 issue of another journal, the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, Brandt-Rauf and the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM), for which the JOEM is the official journal, have indirect ties to Dow Chemical and its strategic partner, GlaxoSmithKline. The ACOEM gave Dow Chemical the "Corporate Health Achievement Award" in 2000, for which Brandt-Rauf has been a reviewer. The award is funded by GlaxoSmithKline, Dow Chemical's strategic partner. And Columbia University, Brandt-Rauf's employer, receives "significant funds" from GlaxoSmithKline, according to the editorial.

Editorial coauthor Lee Friedman cautioned that practically every researcher and professional organization has ties—at least, indirect ones—to corporate sponsors, but "just the fact that there is an association raises concerns," he told The Scientist.

Dow did not respond to requests for an interview.

While many worry about researchers' funding sources, relatively few investigate corporate connections to editors, publishers, and journal parent organizations, Friedman said. "There is a need for greater transparency," he added.

Friedman, director of the Social Policy Research Institute in Illinois, cited a 2002 study in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics showing that 42% of the editors of 33 medical journals owned by professional associations said they had recently received pressure from the association's leadership over content.

Furthermore, editors are not supposed to be able to veto ads, Friedman added. At many major biomedical journals, such as the Journal of the American Medical Association, the New England Journal of Medicine, editors are "blinded" to which ads are going into which issue, to separate editorial from advertising.

Editor's note: Please see a letter on this story.

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