By John Stone
Following an editorial calling for tighter standards on Conflict of Interest by British Medical Journal editor Fiona Godlee, the journal has omitted to publish a letter pointing to its continuing failure to acknowledge its business association with MMR manufacturer Merck: BMJ Learning is in partnership with Merck’s information division Univadis, as pointed in these columns and AHRP by Martin J. Walker earlier this year (See here also). Godlee was forced into a limited admission of error in March in relation to BMJ’s recycling of allegations of fraud against Andrew Wakefield originally made by journalist Brian Deer in the Sunday Times just days after New International boss James Murdoch joined the board of another MMR manufacturePreviewr, GSK, with a brief to help look after the the group's reputation (Age of Autism James Murdoch Still Supported by GSK).
However, ultimately BMJ flunked the main issue of the Univadis/Merck connection, and only published a limited acknowledgement that they had failed to disclose the sponsorship of Merck and GSK of their annual awards ceremony, which had been mentioned by the present writer separately. This was further weakened by the fact that the disclosure, when published as a correction, only linked only to editorials in the journal and not to the articles by Mr Deer making the allegations. In her forced reply in BMJ on-line Godlee had originally explained that they had not disclosed the links “because it did not occur to us to do so”, but in the case of the links between BMJ’s learning division and Merck’s information division they still haven’t even though by now it certainly must have done.
This is not the only area of BMJ’s insensitivity over conflict of interest in the MMR affair. Associate BMJ editor, Harvey Marcovitch, signed editorials censuring Wakefield despite also being head of GMC panels and with the case still under judicial review, while also having failed to act on the conflicts of the panel chairman in the case, Surendra Kumar (Age of Autism Harvey Marcovitch and Brian Deer and the Lord High Everything Else ). These are just part of a catalogue of bizarre and often outrageous conflicts that have marked the British establishment’s pursuit of Wakefield from the beginning (Age of Autism What's Behind Ben Goldacre and Child Health Safety MMR Files Forced Open ).To put the omission in further context Marcovitch himself had recently published on the anomaly of journals being keener on the commercial conflicts of potential authors than their own. But as for BMJ, it looks as if anything goes despite the fact that both Godlee and Marcovitch are former chairs of the Committee on Publication Ethics.
BMJ’s relationship with Merck has continued despite the exposure of the pharmaceutical company’s activities in the Vioxx affair, which included the publication of fake journal articles in collaboration with Lancet publisher Reed Elsevier and a memo which talked about destroying critical scientists “where they live”.
Here is the text of my letter, so far unpublished by BMJ:-
Leadership by example?
When recently Dr Godlee acknowledged BMJ's competing interests in the
MMR affair over the publication of articles by Brian Deer and the group’s
business association with GlaxoSmithKline and Merck she announced that
they had failed to do this because "it did not occur to us to do so" .
Moreover, when they did do so they only did it in a half-hearted way. They
have still not acknowledged their partnership between Merck's information
division Univadis through BMJ Learning, but only the sponsorship of Merck
and GSK for their awards, and they have only linked this information to
their editorials and not Mr Deer's articles (so anyone reading those will
be none the wiser about the journal's conflicts) . Nor were these
conflicts, when exposed, the subject of an international news release like
the original story.
As I also pointed out at the time BMJ can scarcely be naieve about
the implications of this dereliction, as editorial co-author Harvey
Marcovitch had written elsewhere :
"It is a paradox that the professional medical association that owns
JAMA was less than open and transparent with Lundh and colleagues about
potential financial conflicts (such as their income from industry sources)
as they expect their authors to be."
All of this leaves the public at a peculiar disadvantage, if the
rules BMJ are talking about are only for other people.
 Fiona Godlee, 'In response to John Stone',
 Correction: 'Wakefield's article linking MMR vaccine and autism
was fraudulent' http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.d1678
 Harvey Marcovitch, 'Editors, Publishers, Impact Factors, and
John Stone is UK editor for Age of Autism.