Unethical Bioethicists?

Posted by Pete Shanks February 10, 2012
Biopolitical Times

Questions are swirling around the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB). Exactly what is happening remains unclear, but Twitter is abuzz. University of Minnesota Bioethicist Leigh Turner, in particular, is loudly calling on the entire editorial board to resign, and he is picking up some support. Since the board, at least nominally, includes a virtual who's-who of bioethics, including 36 luminaries (read the list), this would be a very big deal.

The precipitating event here is that AJOB founder Glenn McGee, who boasts that Nature called him the "pioneer of bioethics on the Internet" has moved on, again. He launched the journal in 1999 when he was at the University of Pennsylvania, and took it with him when he moved in 2005 to the Alden March Bioethics Institute, and again when he left there three years later under a cloud of accusations (detailed in Scientific American) and moved to the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas, MO. There were questions then about the commercialization of bioethics, since his side business, which shares a website with the journal, was by then explicitly for-profit, but his latest move raises the stakes considerably: He's moved out of academia altogether, to take a position at Celltex Therapeutics in Houston.

Celltex is a stem-cell company, "the only Texas adult stem cell bank thus far," and set to benefit from freshly minted Texas rules about the use of treatments that have not been approved by the FDA. And they are partnered with RNLBio, the Korean company that is perhaps most notorious for dog cloning but, worse, was involved in the deaths of two patients.

(See "Stem cell graft, Texas-style" for details of RNLBio as the company that developed the procedure used to inject Texas governor Rick Perry with autologous stem cells last summer, and MSNBC's account of Perry pushing a bill through the legislature to authorize Celltex as a stem cell bank, a move it described as an example of "what critics view as his willingness to use the levers of state government to benefit friends and political benefactors.")

Meanwhile Bioethics.net, the for-profit online companion to AJOB, set up a page (now seemingly gone, but cached here) for "the Texas Association for Stem Cell Ethics and Policy."

McGee apparently realized that it might not look good for the editor of a bioethics journal to have as his day job supervising the ethics of a stem-cell company. So he turned his position as Editor-in-Chief over to his wife.* Really?

Well, the Co-Editors-in-Chief are now David Magnus, who has been involved for years, and Summer Johnson McGee, while Glenn is on the masthead as "Founder (Editor-in-Chief 1999-2012)." Which is a little odd, since he apparently took the job at Celltex at the beginning of December, but perhaps they're just catching up; the Info page was updated today. According to the weekly AJOB News email, the physical address changed from Kansas City to Houston in December (the Dec 9 email had the old address, later ones the new). And Summer Johnson McGee very rapidly acquired a position at Loyola, presumably in conjunction with the move to Texas that she and husband Glenn were making as he donned his private-sector hat.

As Leigh Turner points out on Twitter, it's a "big deal" to try "dodging COI [conflicts of interest] by handing editor hat to spouse." Moreover, there are suggestions that the AJOB editorial board knew nothing about the shift in leadership ahead of time. Is that true? If they didn't, why on earth not?

*Update: David Magnus told Inside Higher Ed that making Summer Johnson McGee Co-Editor was his idea.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: