It’s been quite a month. Along with the clearing of Professor John Walker-Smith’s name, the discrediting of the Lancet’s retraction of Wakefield et al. for which he was senior author and the subsequent evisceration of most of the General Medical Council’s (GMC’s) charges “found proved” against Dr. Andrew Wakefield, comes yet more insightful news about the British Medical Journal (BMJ) article accusing him of fraud. BMJ Editor-in-Chief Fiona Godlee has persistently claimed that Part I of Brian Deer’s “Secrets of the MMR Scare” Series, “How the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed,” was peer reviewed. However, she has never been clear about how this was done.
If there is anything new from Brian Deer, Dr. Fiona Godlee and the BMJ Publishing Group’s “anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss” Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s defamation lawsuit, it’s that no one other than Dr. Godlee, deputy editor Dr. Jane Smith and associate editor Dr. Harvey Marcovitch reviewed Deer’s stories pre-publication. In other words, Deer’s entire series was never peer reviewed, in contrast to what Dr. Godlee falsely claimed via email about Part I of the series (responding to emails sent by Age of Autism readers):
The article, which was subjected to peer review and editorial checking, was based on enquiries carried out over some seven years, involving, among other things, interviews with parents of children enrolled in Andrew Wakefield's research.
Underneath the Footnotes section of the article in BMJ reads the following claim:
Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
The motion-to-dismiss cites written declarations from all three editors and from Brian Deer on behalf of the defendants: Brian Deer, Dr. Godlee and the BMJ Publishing Group.
Yet Dr. Marcovitch is not correctly referred to as an associate editor in the motion as he was on the accompanying editorial cosigned by him at the time Part I of Deer’s series was published. Instead, Dr. Marcovitch is referred to as an “external reviewer.” What’s more, Brian Deer, Dr. Fiona Godlee and the BMJ Publishing Group used this false reference to deny actual malice:
Additional Fact-Checking and External Review: Not only did the BMJ fully trust Deer and his reporting, it and Dr. Godlee took extra steps to ensure the reporting was truthful. For Deer, who was ever mindful of Dr. Wakefield's prior litigation and regulatory-complaint history, this meant five months of work to ensure that every word and every citation was verified. (166) For the BMJ, this meant a separate fact-check of the first article by a deputy editor (Smith) and an external review for scientific accuracy by an expert pediatrician (Dr. Marcovitch).(167) Pre-publication review by outside sources constitutes affirmative evidence of no actual malice.
Of course, Dr. Marcovitch was not an outside source as claimed in the motion. Not only that, he was perhaps the most conflicted of all three editorial cosignatories. His conflicts included being the head of panels for the GMC and being a member of a pharma-backed company, the UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO). There was even a campaign launched by Age of Autism readers last year to complain about him to the GMC.
Although he is still listed as associate editor on the BMJ website’s masthead, Dr. Marcovitch claimed to have left the publication late last year. When contacted by the National Whistleblower Center’s Dr. David Lewis during his investigation of the journal’s institutional research misconduct, Dr. Marcovitch bowed out of the probe with the excuse that he was no longer associated with BMJ Publishing Group:
Subject: Re: NWC Board Meeting
From: HARVEY MARCOVITCH Hide
Date: Fri, Oct 14, 2011, 11:15 am
Dear Dr Lewis,
I no longer have any association with BMJ Publishing Group so cannot assist with your query.
Yet he has now made a written declaration of support for the motion to dismiss served by the lawyers of Brian Deer, Dr. Fiona Godlee and the BMJ Publishing Group. Throughout the motion, Dr. Marcovitch’s declaration was cited either to repeat the GMC’s discredited findings against the Lancet paper by Wakefield et al., or to dramatically allege the paper started “one of the great public health disasters in the UK in modern times.”
One claim for which the motion did not cite Marcovitch’s declaration was that he was an “expert pediatrician” who “externally reviewed” Part I of Brian Deer’s series for “scientific accuracy.” The declaration that was cited to support the claim of Marcovitch’s independence was made by Dr. Fiona Godlee, herself a defendant in the case as well as editor-in-chief of the medical journal being sued.
But will she stand by that declaration in a foreign court, having traveled all the way from London, England to Austin, Texas so as to perjure herself on her own behalf as well as her current employer’s? I wouldn’t put much past her, but that seems very unlikely.
Would Dr. Marcovitch be willing to travel all the way from London, England to Austin, Texas just to perjure himself in a foreign court on behalf of what he claims are his ex-boss and his ex-employer by lying that he was an “external reviewer” when he was in fact an associate editor of the BMJ? That seems even less likely.
BMJ’s lawyers will say whatever is most convenient in their attempt to quash Dr. Wakefield’s lawsuit and keep it from reaching trial. They did the same when denying Brian Deer received a letter from a parent accusing him of misrepresenting his own son’s case in the BMJ series.
However, I would imagine a motion’s strength depends on whether the arguments made in that motion could be legally made under oath in a court of law. That is not the case here; the BMJ’s argument of external review is not even consistent. The motion’s introduction made an oxymoronic statement about Dr. Marcovitch’s role in the affair when it said Deer’s investigation was:
…subjected to multiple editorial reviews, including an external review by an expert pediatrician.
An external review cannot be included as an editorial review. An editor, like Harvey Marcovitch before supposedly jumping ship, makes an editorial review.
So much for Dr. Godlee’s “peer review” claim, a claim that – if made in court on a public stand – will get her in a whole, new kind of trouble. This time, however, it will be with the State of Texas.
The alternative to committing perjury is not much better. That alternative is Dr. Fiona Godlee and the BMJ Publishing Group acknowledging the journal’s publication of non-peer reviewed charges by a journalist with no medical or scientific background, accusing a medical researcher of committing scientific fraud in a peer-reviewed paper (Wakefield et al.). If that alone does not prove malice on the part of Dr. Godlee and the BMJ, it would certainly prove reckless disregard for accuracy.
Add the fact that Dr. Godlee falsely told concerned readers that Brian Deer’s BMJ article was “subjected to peer review” plus the false claim underneath the article that it was “externally peer reviewed.” Then there is this motion made by all three defendants, including Brian Deer, falsely calling Dr. Harvey Marcovitch the “external reviewer.” The result looks very much like conscious, intentional wrongdoing. In other words, malice.
Jake Crosby has Asperger Syndrome and is a contributing editor to Age of Autism. He has been blocked from Brian Deer’s website ever since investigating for the article “Fresh Fraud” and has been removed from talks by Seth Mnookin and Paul Offit. Jake is a 2011 graduate of Brandeis University with a BA in both History and Health: Science, Society and Policy. He currently attends The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services where he is studying for an MPH in epidemiology.