Ethics in Bioethics

Conflict of interest. Internet scrubbing. Nepotism. Allegations are flying around an influential journal's former editor.



February 16, 2012

Depending on who you ask, Glenn McGee is either a visionary who made bioethicists more visible or an ambitious arriviste with questionable ethics on some issues.

McGee, a prominent  and sometimes controversial bioethicist, is raising the hackles of others in his profession again, this time for joining a for-profit Texas stem-cell company even as, his critics say, he remained editor of the American Journal of Bioethics, an influential journal he founded.

One version of Glenn McGee’s move was announced in a press release this week. "Celltex Therapeutics Corporation is pleased to announce that Glenn McGee, Ph.D, an internationally respected bioethicist, has joined the firm as president of Ethics and Strategic Initiatives,” the press release said. It said he resigned as editor-in-chief of the journal in Nov. 2011 and his position as the John B. Francis Chair at the Center for Practical Bioethics, a Kansas City nonprofit involved in practical bioethics, but would serve the journal in an advisory capacity till the beginning of March.

But several bioethicists allege there is a murkier version of McGee’s transition to working for a for-profit company, and he that started working for Celltex last year even as he remained editor of the AJOB, as the journal is commonly called. They point to his name appearing in the media in December as a Celltex representative when he was still part of AJOB, and say this is a conflict of interest because the journal covers stem-cell issues. They say even the press release earlier this week might have been a reaction to heavy discussion of the issue on Twitter by bioethicists last week.

The critics are alleging more potential conflicts: Celltex has a business relationship with RNL Bio, a South Korean stem-cell company, which was evaluated by McGee after two Korean patients died following stem-cell injections. McGee recommended "an external, international ethics advisory board" as one remedy. His detractors point out that one of McGee’s successors at AJOB is his wife Summer McGee (previously the managing editor), and the appointment raises the issue of nepotism.

Bioethics blogs have lit up with commentary and accusations; a site called “Fear and Loathing in Bioethics” has a rough guide to the issue, from the perspective of McGee's critics.

McGee, who did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for an interview, tangled last year with Hilde Lindemann, a professor of philosophy at Michigan State University who quit the editorial board of AJOB after questioning the way articles were reviewed. "[I]t seems that our good names go toward a journal that we know very little about," she said at the time. McGee and other top editors at the journal responded by saying that the information that Lindemann said was unavailable had actually been released by AJOB.

Paul Root Wolpe, a professor of bioethics at Emory University and the editor of AJOB Neuroscience, a sister-publication, said the ongoing controversy was due to “internal political struggles in the field.” Wolpe said Summer McGee, previously the managing editor at AJOB, was eminently qualified to lead the journal. “She is an excellent scholar in her own right,” he said.

Wolpe pointed out that articles related to stem cells are only a small part of what AJOBS publishes. “The issues being raised really have no merit,” he said. “McGee has recused himself, he has left the journal and he will not have a role in the running of the journals.” Conflict of interest issues are sometimes inevitable, but the issues had been managed appropriately, he said. Wolpe added that the information about McGee’s transition was not handled well but it did not reach the level of a transgression.

Laurence B. McCullough, a professor of medicine and medical ethics at Baylor College of Medicine, who is on the AJOB editorial board, said the allegations against McGee should be treated with deep and systemic skepticism. “They do not have the facts right, and they do not bother to get the facts right,” McCullough said. “They have made false statements and misrepresentations, and this has only gained traction because of the nature of the blogosphere.” He said McGee initiated the move to step down because of conflict-of-interest issues.

David Magnus, now the co-editor-in-chief of AJOB and a bioethics professor at Stanford University, sent an e-mail on Feb. 11 to the journal's editorial board, saying that Summer McGee's appointment as co-editor was his idea. "We should treat possible COIs [conflicts of interest] that may arise out of the fact that her husband works for a stem cell company the same way we should deal with that for all possible COIs -- the person involved will recuse themselves from involvement in any manuscripts or editorial decisions that create a COI. Half of my faculty at Stanford have spouses that work in biotech or are lawyers whose firms may represent biotech companies," the e-mail said.

McGee’s critics do not dispute the importance of the AJOB. Lindemann, who resigned from the editorial board last year, said the journal was the most highly cited journal in the field and all the top players publish in it. “The format is absolutely brilliant,” she said, referring to the practice at the journal of posting articles in an online forum to invite commentators for their opinions, and then publishing both in print. But “the editorial board at the journal is not consulted much,” she said.

Leigh Turner, an associate professor of bioethics at the University of Minnesota, posted a blog entry Tuesday afternoon called “Glenn McGee and The Internet Adjustment Bureau” featuring screen grabs from and McGee’s LinkedIn and Google+ accounts, trying to prove that McGee had scrubbed the internet following the Twitter discussion on Feb. 9.

The sites on Feb. 9 showed him holding both the editorship and the corporate position, Turner said, but three days later they had been changed to reflect that McGee was no longer editor-in-chief.

“Serving as Editor-in-Chief of AJOB while employed as a senior corporate executive at Celltex is an undeniable conflict of interest. The extent of damage caused by this behavior is not yet known.  Bioethics is already regarded as a greasy, low-grade area of scholarship by many of our academic colleagues,” Turner wrote in his post.

Another critic, Alice Dreger, a bioethics professor at Northwestern University, said McGee had fallen down on the job of disclosure. “All this seems like a joke. This is typical McGee. Claims contrast each other and timelines and facts do not seem to make sense,” she said.

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