American bioethics shaken by dispute over conflict of interest

Michael Cook
19 Feb 2012
Reproduced with Permission

Within the vast mansion of bioethics there is a small but very active group of purists in the basement policing the ethics of the pragmatists. The bone of contention is not philosophical but financial. Many pragmatists earn substantial sums as consultants helping industry cope with government red tape and bad public relations. At times sniping between the two breaks into nasty skirmishes.

The latest outbreak concerns the former editor of the American Journal of Bioethics, Glenn McGee. Dr McGee founded and nurtured AJOB until it now has the highest impact factor in its field (3.986 in 2010). In the AJOB stable are a website and two other journals, AJOB Neuroscience and AJOB Primary Research. He has been a controversial character, but nothing has kicked up controversy so much as the circumstances surrounding his departure.

The narrative is extremely involved and somewhat murky. The quick summary is that in November Dr McGee was Editor of AJOB. As of March 1, he will fully hand over his role to co-editors David Magnus, of Stanford, and Summer Johnson McGee, the former managing editor, and McGee's wife. Dr McGee's new job is President of the Ethics Research Division for Celltex Therapeutics Corporation, a stem cell clinic and banking facility in Texas.

Celltex is a controversial outfit founded by the doctor who gave Texas governor Rick Perry stem cell injections for back pain. It has licenced technology from a Korean company, RNL Bio, which uses stem cells for therapies which are not approved in Korea, although its subsidiaries provide them in Japan, China, Germany and the US. There have been at least two deaths associated with its products. Dr McGee helped to write a report for the International Cellular Medicine Society in 2010 on these which largely exonerated the company.

The purists are up in arms over several conflict-of-interest issues related to this job change. One is Dr McGee appointing his wife as a co-editor of AJOB while working for a company which may be pushing ethical safeguards to the limit. Another is his alleged audacity in keeping his position as editor of AJOB for a while at the same time as he was employed by the Dark Side at Celltex.

Leigh Turner, of the University of Minnesota, one of McGee's harshest critics, says "Bioethics is already regarded as a greasy, low-grade area of scholarship by many of our academic colleagues. Will the field's reputation continue to drop as a result of this embarrassment?"

One member of the AJOB editorial board has resigned over the incident and says that he will encourage an academic boycott. John Lantos, a former president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, says, "recent events make it clear that the journal has lost credibility in ways that tarnish not just the names of people associated with it but also the reputation of the entire field of bioethics."

There are always two side to squabbles over professional standards. Another member of the AJOB board, Lawrence McCullough, defended McGee strongly.

"They do not have the facts right, and they do not bother to get the facts right," McCullough told Inside HigherEd. "They have made false statements and misrepresentations, and this has only gained traction because of the nature of the blogosphere."

  1. David Magnus, now the co-editor of AJOB, took a far more relaxed view of the husband/wife conflict of interest issue. He felt that it was not a difficult problem to solve. "Half of my faculty at Stanford have spouses that work in biotech or are lawyers whose firms may represent biotech companies," he told Inside Higher Ed.