By John Stone
British Medical Journal’s editor has been forced into an embarrassing admission that the journal should have disclosed connections with MMR manufacturers Merck and GSK when publishing attacks on the integrity of Andrew Wakefield in January (HERE). Godlee’s admission came eight days after my letter to the journal was submitted, and three days after the publication of my article on Age of Autism (HERE). My letter was occasioned by an article in Age of Autism by Martin J Walker (HERE ) subsequently also published in Vera Sharav’s AHRP newsletter (HERE). I had been responding to an article highlighting the issue of free access journals and advertising: BMJ apparently did not think this applied to them.
Godlee’s admission, “We did not declare these competing interests because it did not occur to us to do so”, underlines the complacence, and even arrogance, of large journals that think they are above having interests. Nor will her defence carry much water amid the hotly disputed claims of Brian Deer’s articles that the issue was fraud so who manufactured the products did not matter. BMJ in a breach of the basic traditions of peer review journals have been unwilling to allow their and Deer’s allegations to be discussed directly in its columns, many letters to the journal have been blocked, Deer has never been required to respond to criticisms, and the defence of their position has been crudely legalistic (HERE ).
However, Godlee’s admission represents a major blow against scientific journals, however large, not declaring their commercial interests: the excuse “it did not occur to us” will scarcely wash again.
This is the latest episode in a long running series of battles between Age of Autism and the journal. In February 2010 BMJ were forced to admit that Prof Trisha Greenhalgh had not only contributed to Brian Deer’s website, but had also received £1.4m in Department of Health research grants since 2003 (HERE, HERE ). In March 2010 Age of Autism highlighted the removal by BMJ of a series of letters questioning how Brian Deer obtained confidential material about Royal Free patients and MMR litigants, while in May 2010 the journal refused to acknowledge that Brian Deer was the undisclosed complainant to the GMC against Wakefield and colleagues (HERE), which has been covered by tortuous language in the latest publications, though never acknowledged in the Sunday Times. Age of Autism has also focussed on the role of Harvey Marcovitch who doubles as a BMJ associate editor, co-authoring editorials against Wakefield, and chairman of panels at the GMC (HERE ).