The editor of Indian Journal of Medical Ethics (IJME), Amar Jesani, has written some comments on my blog post “Deception, distrust and disrespect”. Read my response below:
Ole Petter Otterson’s blog contains few inaccuracies and moralistic sermons – I hope they are not wilful/deliberate.
1. Before publishing in the IJME. Lars Andersson published in the Journal of Internal Medicine with Wiley as publisher. His three pieces appeared in 2014, 15 and 17 – three consecutive yearsII He wrote on equally sensitive issue – vaccine and indulged in debate with other authors. All the while he showed his affiliation with the Kerolinska Institute (KI). The KI never protested. Even today, his affiliation is shown as that of the KI on the website of the JOIM. This blog does not say that the KI has drawn attention of the JOIM as they did with the IJME.
2. The IJME decided not to retract the said paper. The paper is using publicly accessible data and uses a very simple analysis which could be done by anybody. His inferences and conclusions, whether “premature” or “half-baked”, are open to challenge by experts. He did not carry out any experiment for which one may need to go to his laboratory to find out whether it was real of fake. I would urge you to read material in question and not to use unnecessary generalisation or be moralistic about the issue.
3. Why should an author not have a right to remain anonymous? There are circumstances where some may need protection of anonymity. For instance, would you expect a doctor in occupied territory anywhere in the world write about his/her experience or do analysis of cases of torture perpetrated by occupier using his/her real name? That is the reason why nobody with some ethics grounding would agree to a blanket rule that all authors must identify in public. Such rule would not be ethics, but the luxury of those researcher protected in the cocoons of developed countries. The author in question has, after first deceiving us, identified to the editor – that is it, and should be sufficient. If he wants to identify in public, he will do it.
4. Lastly, yes, Lars Andersson did deceive us and we admitted it. But he seems to have deceived the KI too, and that since 2014. Why are you not talking about the flaws in the way the KI is run? By the way, the KI is not immune to ethics scandals – we need not bring them here.
5. Lastly, the right way to question us is to analyse whether in the present melieu the medicine and science are treating vaccine as sacred / holy cow or any such animal and creating such fear complex that even those who support vaccine and vaccination but at the same time want to do scientific critical thinking are afraid of coming out in open. Better to work for more tolerance for genuine vaccine critics than condemning them.
Amar Jesani, Editor, IJME
Dear Mr. Jesani,
Thank you for your comments. Here is my response:
1 The journals are the first line of contact with the authors and with this comes a responsibility to confirm the authors’ identity and affiliation and to safeguard the quality of the manuscript. The universities are not set up to police the journals and their editorial practices. Indeed the relationship between journals and universities should be based on trust – as should the relationship between journals and the society at large. Lax editorial policies serve to erode trust, as in the case at hand.
Universities – on their side – have a responsibility to act swiftly when deceit is brought to their attention – but their responsibility does not extend to monitoring the quality of the editorial process. Had we been alerted about Lars Andersson’s false affiliation in the Journal of Internal Medicine we would have acted as swiftly as in the case of the current publication in the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics.
Let me add: To any editor it should have served as a warning sign when a lone author submits a paper on a sensitive issue with an email address that has no connect to the purported affiliation. We have alerted the other journals that the link between the name “Lars Andersson” and KI must be removed. One of the journals has already promised to comply.
2 We have never been moralistic, but reassert that any journal – and not least a journal which carries the term “ethics” in its name – should be attentive to a basic principle in medical publishing, or in any scientific publishing for that matter, namely that experiments must be open to reinterpretation and – in the case of the present paper – that arguments must be open to debate and counterarguments. Such debates are thwarted by anonymity and false affiliations.
Any paper on a medical issue may impact people’s health, be it through prevention, diagnosis or treatment. With this comes the need to hold authors to account for what they publish.
In my former blog post, I first and foremost discussed the need to avoid fraud and false affiliations. I did not discuss the conclusions made by “Lars Andersson”, nor did I demand a retraction of the article. Let me add, though, that our own researchers in this field publicly and with force dismiss “Lars Anderssons” theories about a possible link between HPV vaccination and an increased incidence of cervical cancer in Sweden.
3 This argument (about being anonymous) is not valid. The editor refers to an extreme case that is not representative of the case at hand. However, we agree that in rare and exceptional cases it could well be that authors are in need of protection through anonymity. But right to anonymity does not imply right to false affiliation. If anonymity should be required, then the journal should state this explicitly on the title page. The author should then be listed as “anonymous”, and not with a fake name and a fake affiliation. This is basic procedure, and this is transparency.
4 We are working proactively when it comes to ethics in medical research and our firm response to this deceit is a case in point. We are transparent when it comes to our own shortcomings but these do not absolve the journals from their responsibility to uphold sound editorial procedures.
5 I refer to my previous blog: “Authors must be allowed to challenge accepted wisdom and dogma – obviously this is of utmost importance for scientific progress and for trust in research – but soundness in scientific approach must be a conditio sine qua non.”