Bioethicists disagree about whether it is ethically proper for them to accept money from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, but until recently, there has never been a time when bioethics scholars felt compelled to consider the possibility that a bioethicist might operate a bioethics journal—or, in this case, “family” of journals—from the corporate boardroom. Last week, it became apparent that Glenn McGee, Editor-in-Chief of The American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB), was working as President, Ethics Research Division for Celltex Therapeutics Corporation, a stem cell clinic and banking facility in Texas. Though McGee has worked for Celltex since at least mid-December and perhaps earlier, reports of McGee’s conflict of interest did not start circulating among bioethicists until the last few days.
There are many elements to this story and events continue to unfold; here I limit myself to providing a brief chronological account, supported by documentation, of how McGee’s conflict of interest was detected, how he attempted to dodge accusations of a conflict of interest by handing the title of Editor-in-Chief to his wife, Summer Johnson McGee, and David Magnus, and how there has subsequently been an attempt to backdate McGee’s resignation date as Editor-in-Chief of AJOB and scrub various websites in a manner that makes it appear as though he was no longer serving as Editor-in-Chief of AJOB by the time he began working at Celltex. I find this last act particularly noteworthy.
Such conduct generates questions that must be confronted by Glenn McGee, members of AJOB’s Editorial Board, participants in the larger “community” of bioethicists, and anyone else concerned with conflicts-of-interest, the integrity of academic journals, and organizational arrangements that allow and even enable unethical conduct without, it appears, anyone in a position of responsibility taking steps that might have prevented behavior that we all should acknowledge as damaging to the integrity of bioethics.
Glenn McGee Joins Celltex Therapeutics
Whatever the exact date at which McGee joined Celltex, it is clear that by mid-December 2011 he was serving as Editor-in-Chief of AJOB while also employed as President of Celltex’s Ethics Research Division. On December 15, 2011, Houston Business Journal published an article about Celltex; McGee is quoted and identified as Celltex President of Strategic Initiatives. That same day, McGee delivered the Greeting and Closing Remarks at a Celltex-RNL Bio dinner reception held at The Houstonian Hotel’s Jupiter Room. The agenda (proceed to link and scroll down to 12th photo) lists McGee’s title as Celltex’s President of Ethics and Policy. The next day, December 16, McGee conducted an interview with Kuhf Houston Public Radio. The station identified him as Celltex’s President of Strategic Initiatives. Through the remainder of December, all of January, and through the first week of February 2012 McGee continued to serve as the Editor-in-Chief of AJOB while working as a President at Celltex. The situation changed February 9-10, 2012.
At this point in the narrative I must introduce Doug Sipp, an American who lives in Japan and is well-known for his scholarship on “stem cell tourism”. Some of you might recognize his name from his appearance on the 60 Minutes episode examining stem cell tourism and stem cell scams. To the best of my knowledge Sipp is the first researcher to identify McGee’s conflict-of-interest and express skepticism about McGee’s attempt to edit AJOB from Celltex. In a blog entry, Stem cell graft, Texas-style, Sipp noted this conflict-of-interest and also drew attention to what appeared to be a second conflict-of-interest involving McGee. McGee’s employer, Celltex, paid $30 million upfront to license RNL Bio’s stem cell technology and in time might pay an additional $270 million. Prior to accepting employment at Celltex McGee investigated the deaths of two individuals who had received stem cells provided by RNL Bio. Sipp’s blog expressed concern about McGee’s prior work investigating RNL Bio and his subsequent move to a senior executive position at a company with tight financial links to RNL Bio. Sipp’s post got my attention. I began visiting various websites McGee uses to promote himself and it became apparent that McGee was indeed continuing to edit AJOB from Celltex. McGee’s LinkIn page, the Editor’s page on the AJOB section of bioethics.net, and his Google+ page all identified him as President of Celltex and Editor-in-Chief of AJOB.
On February 9, 2012, I began tweeting about McGee’s conflict of interest. Later on the 9th, after a flurry of tweets calling for McGee to resign as Editor-in-Chief of AJOB and asking members of the Editorial Board to resign if he remained as Editor, an editor at Reuters tweeted a link to McGee’s LinkedIn account. There, a post announced McGee’s pending “retirement” from serving as Editor-in-Chief of AJOB. The LinkedIn post stated: “I am writing to let you know that as of March 1st, 2012 I will step down from my role as Editor-in-Chief of The American Journal of Bioethics.” Later in the announcement McGee intimated that his time as Editor-in-Chief of AJOB might extend beyond the beginning of March. He wrote, “I will continue in my role through the production of AJOB’s June issue and continue to provide advice and counsel as asked going forward.” The announcement was dated 1/30/2012. You can find a copy of that announcement here.
By 11:00 PM February 9, this announcement—an announcement that acknowledged McGee was presently serving as Editor-in-Chief of AJOB, that he would not vacate the position until March 1, 2012, and that he was turning the editorial job over to his wife and a colleague—had disappeared from McGee’s LinkedIn account.
Just as the February 9 announcement disappeared from the Internet, other web pages underwent a scrubbing. They emerged in a form that deleted evidence of McGee’s conflicted role in serving simultaneously as AJOB Editor and Celltex President.
For example, take the AJOB section of bioethics.net. On February 9, 2012, “The Editors” section on the AJOB component of bioethics.net listed Glenn McGee as Editor-in-Chief. By February 12, 2012, Glenn McGee was no longer identified as Editor-in-Chief. Instead, David Magnus and Summer Johnson McGee were listed as Co-Editors-in-Chief.
McGee’s LinkedIn account also underwent some scrubbing. On February 9, 2012, McGee’s LinkedIn account listed his current appointments as President, Ethics Research Divison at Celltex Therapeutics Corporation and Editor-in-Chief at The American Journal of Bioethics. By February 12, 2012, the LinkedIn account had been changed to read “President, Ethics Research Division at Celltex Therapeutics Corporation.” Editor-in-Chief of AJOB was no longer listed as a “current” activity. Instead, “Founding Editor-in-Chief at The American Journal of Bioethics” was listed under the category “Past”.
McGee’s Google+ account was also changed to eliminate statements revealing that he was serving as Editor of AJOB while also working as a President at Celltex. On February 10 he was listed as Editor in Chief of AJOB (See cached webpage with title still present). By February 12 he was listed as President at Celltex.
Interestingly, there is at least one website that has not been scrubbed. As of February 12, 2012, McGee remains listed as Editor-in-Chief on the AJOB home page of the journal publisher, Taylor & Francis. Someone should tell AJOB’s publisher that McGee is not in Kansas any more.
On February 10, 2012, one day after the February 9, 2012 announcement of McGee’s March 1, 2012 departure as AJOB Editor was posted and then deleted, Celltex issued a press release announcing McGee’s appointment as Celltex’s President of Ethics and Strategic Initiatives. The press release states, “Dr. McGee, who resigned his position as the John B. Francis Chair at the Center for Practical Bioethics and his role as editor-in-chief of The American Journal of Bioethics in November 2011, was the founder of the publication. Under his leadership, The American Journal of Bioethics became the leading journal in its field. He is now serving in an advisory capacity with the journal until March 1, 2011 (sic).” This press release is now posted at sites all over the Internet. For example, you can find it here, here, and here. As someone who read McGee’s February 9 announcement of his March “retirement” as well as his self-identification as Editor-in-Chief of AJOB up to and including February 9, 2012, it seems to me that the practical effect of announcing “news” of McGee’s appointment to Celltex is to backdate his resignation as Editor-in-Chief of AJOB to November 2011. With this Internet sleight-of-hand McGee’s conflict-of-interest is being made to disappear.
Beyond the Internet Scrubbing
Three issues merit close analysis by members of the AJOB Editorial Board, participants in the larger bioethics community, and everyone interested in academic integrity and the credibility of the field of bioethics.
To begin, it appears that the first—and let us all hope the last—attempt to edit a bioethics journal from within the walls of the senior executives’ suite has not ended well. But just when and how did it start? And did members of the Board of Editors, distinguished scholars all, sanction McGee’s decision to edit AJOB from CellTex? I would like to know how this spectacle started, whether members of the Board of Editors of AJOB were aware of this conflict-of-interest and endorsed it, and, if they were unaware of the conflict, why they did not know and yet are listed as members of the Editorial Board.
Second, there are approximately seven billion people on our planet. I find it striking that there are some members of the bioethics community who apparently believe that a reasonable way—indeed the best of all possible ways—for McGee to handle such an egregious conflict-of-interest is to attempt to deflect criticisms by handing AJOB to his wife. If AJOB has a future, and at this point perhaps it is best if it doesn’t, what is needed is a complete break from current leadership and full movement of the journal out of the McGee family.
Third, McGee could have avoided being accused of a conflict-of-interest by resigning as Editor-in-Chief of AJOB before accepting a position at Celltex. Had he taken this step we all could put aside discussion of AJOB and consider why a bioethicist is now a senior executive at a company that plans to sell non-FDA-approved stem cells. McGee did not choose this option. He could have picked a more difficult path, maintained the conflict-of-interest in the face of criticism, and waited to see whether contributors, reviewers, and members of the Board of Editors dropped away from AJOB. (Judging by the last few days, I think it plausible that McGee could have himself started injecting stem cells into Celltex customers and manuscripts would have continued arriving at AJOB, reviewers would have continued submitting their reviews, and members of the Editorial Board would have continued doing whatever it is that they do.) Available evidence indicates that McGee did not pursue these first two choices. Instead, what we have is some shady third strategy that involves scrubbing the Internet of evidence revealing the conflict-of-interest and having Celltex blast across the web a press release that backdates his departure to November 2011.
Scrubbing the Internet is a relatively straightforward undertaking and if it succeeds time shifts and a new, improved conflict-of-interest free chronology replaces what appears to have been a hurried leap from a seat that suddenly became quite hot. As it happens, documenting Internet scrubbing is also a fairly straightforward matter. I must acknowledge, though, what an odd experience it is to sit and watch the Internet being scrubbed in real-time.
And So Here We Are
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. Will the field’s reputation continue to drop as a result of this embarrassment? Handing the position of Editor to a spouse seems to me an insult to the idea that conflicts-of-interest must be addressed and resolved in a serious, credible manner. Facing the threat of lawsuits, Joe Paterno transferred to his wife full ownership of their home. I’m sure most of us scoff when we hear of such behaviour. We see the act for what it is. And yet when McGee is called out for handing the position of Editor-in-Chief to his wife some bioethicists go to extraordinary lengths to defend this choice. How can we berate others for behavior we tolerate among ourselves? And finally, what future is there for a bioethicist whose primary response when caught in a conflict-of-interest is to scramble across the Internet in a mad rush to scrub from existence all signs of the conflict?
February 14, 2012
Note correction: Two readers wrote and noted that the word “whether” appeared twice in first sentence. Duplicate word removed February 15, 2012.