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Sudden Shift at a Public Health Journal Leaves Scientists Feeling Censored

Claiming overreach by a new publisher, the journal’s editorial board asks for disciplinary action from the National Library of Medicine.

Update, Nov. 22, 2017: Citing information they learned in this story, the editorial board resigned in protest, reports Retraction Watch. “We do not wish to be party to the apparent new direction that the journal appears to be moving towards, and will not be party to these developments," they announced in a letter to the publisher.

Update, Nov. 20, 2017: This story has been updated to include a link to earlier reporting by Retraction Watch.

For much of its 22-year existence, few outside the corner of science devoted to toxic chemicals paid much attention to the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health.

But now, a feud has erupted over the small academic publication, as its editorial board — the scientists who advise the journal’s direction and handle article submissions — has accused the journal’s new owner of suppressing a paper and promoting “corporate interests over independent science in the public interest.”

More is at stake than just the journal’s direction.

IJOEH is best known for exposing so-called “product defense science” — industry-linked studies that defend the safety of products made by their funders. At a time when the Trump administration is advancing policies and nominees sympathetic to the chemical industry, the journal seems to be veering in the same direction.

“There are many scientists who work for corporations who are honest scientists,” said David Michaels, the former head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Obama. “What we’re concerned about here is the ‘mercenary science’ … that’s published purely to influence regulation or litigation, and doesn’t contribute to public health.”

“I think the IJOEH articles were threatening to that whole industry,” said Michaels, now an environmental and occupational health professor at George Washington University. While Michaels has never served on the journal’s editorial board, he has published an article in the journal and peer-reviewed others.

The journal was one of the relatively few places that provided an outlet for “scientists whose work is independent of the corporations that manufacture chemicals,” he said. “The silencing of that voice would be a real loss to the field.”

Last Thursday, the journal’s 22-member editorial board, along with eight former board members and the journal’s founding editor-in-chief, wrote a letter to the National Library of Medicine requesting disciplinary action against the academic journal’s new publisher, Taylor & Francis Group. In particular, they asked the Library of Medicine to rescind the journal’s listing in the Medline index, which could drastically reduce its scientific influence.

Academic journals are often judged by the reputations of those on their editorial boards, and this list includes a Columbia University dean, the president of the International Commission on Occupational Health and a scientist who helped establish the cancer classification system used by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

UK-based Taylor & Francis, one of the largest publishers of academic journals, acquired IJOEH and 169 other journals in 2015 by purchasing the journal’s original owner and publisher, Maney Publishing. According to the board’s letter, Taylor & Francis has done the following since taking over:

  • Selected a new editor-in-chief, Andrew Maier, without consulting the editorial board. Board members said it’s “highly unlikely” that they would have approved of Maier. Their letter said he had a tendency to reach scientific conclusions “highly sympathetic to parties with an economic interest in favorable outcomes,” which is at odds with the journal’s mission.
  • Withdrew a peer-reviewed article by the journal’s former editor-in-chief David Egilman that criticized Union Carbide Corporation’s efforts to oppose workers’ claims of asbestos exposure. “Suppression of an accepted paper is a direct assault on academic freedom,” the board members wrote to the Library of Medicine.
  • Flagged three additional studies approved for publication under Egilman as “raising potential concerns,” according to a May 8 email the publisher sent to the board.

A Library of Medicine representative said they’re reviewing the board’s appeal.

Officials at Taylor & Francis declined to speak with ProPublica about the accusations in the letter and did not answer most of the questions we submitted in writing, referring us instead to two emails the publisher sent to the board in May.

In one, Ian Bannerman, manager director of Taylor & Francis Journals, insisted the company had no obligation to consult the board in choosing the journal’s new editor. “The responsibility for selecting and appointing an Editor-in-Chief lies with Taylor & Francis as the owner of the journal,” he wrote.

In the other, Bannerman responded to a question from the board about the publisher’s plans for “repositioning” the journal by saying Taylor & Francis would aim to boost its online readership, citation levels and “rapidity of publication.”

“We do not see this as ‘repositioning’ the journal as such,” Bannerman wrote, “but we do see it as a change of tack — putting in place long-term plans and goals for the journal’s future development, enhanced by our expertise in marketing, online publishing, and bibliometric analysis.”

A Struggling Endeavor

Joseph LaDou, the founding editor-in-chief of IJOEH, launched the journal in 1995 after years of struggling to publish his own research. While studying the health hazards of workers making microelectronics for Silicon Valley in the 1980s, he couldn’t find a single U.S. journal to take his paper, he said, and ended up publishing in a Scandinavian public health journal. So when a Philadelphia-based publisher offered him a chance to start a journal for similar types of studies, he jumped on board.

The journal’s financial situation was always precarious. LaDou said he put $50,000 to $75,000 of his own money into IJOEH each year. Egilman, who became editor-in-chief in 2007, said he also paid out of pocket to keep the publication going. (Both editors worked on the journal part time and earned their income from university positions or from private practice as occupational health experts).

One of the biggest expenses was paying for help writing and editing manuscripts from developing countries, LaDou said. Among the international studies IJOEH published were a paper on how cooking fuel smoke affects respiratory health for women in Cameroon and another on a worker safety program for stevedores working in Cuba’s Port of Havana.

“I can’t think offhand of [another] pro-worker occupational safety and health journal,” LaDou said. “Some are better than others — less controlled — but there’s nothing to replace what IJOEH was doing, particularly on an international scale.”

Most occupational health experts work for industry in some way because there’s little independent funding, said Celeste Monforton, an environmental and occupational health lecturer at Texas State University. There are few academic positions, and the collapse of workers’ unions over the past few decades further decimated the number of labor-related jobs.

“There’s very little investment in occupational health research or looking at exposure to toxics,” said Monforton, who has never published in IJOEH or served on its board. Most of what’s known about toxics comes from original research funded by the federal government in the 1970s and 1980s, when scientists could coordinate with unions to study large groups of workers, she said.

Those studies focused on long-known hazards such as benzene, asbestos or beryllium, setting the stage for stronger workplace regulations. The results prompted a backlash from scientists working in “product defense,” who re-analyzed individual studies to conclude the product was less harmful than the government determined, Monforton said.

If journals are judged by the size of their readership, LaDou’s was a perpetual underdog. “It was never a large subscription,” he said. “You’re up against such a powerful machine in the industry-supported journals … I think the reputation of the journal was that of a non-industry publication that was widely respected, but only by a small segment of the readership community.”

Taylor & Francis has finally figured out a way for this journal to make money, he alleged. “By selling its soul.”

‘A Change of Tack’

In the first months after Taylor & Francis purchased the journal in June 2015, neither the editorial board nor its editor-in-chief noted a major change.

Then, in early 2016, former board member Barry Castleman learned the publisher hadn’t renewed Egilman’s editing contract, which expired in December 2016.

Taylor & Francis hired Maier in early 2017 without consulting board members for their input, as is customary for scientific journals.

Maier is an environmental health professor at the University of Cincinnati and runs a program for research fellows at TERA (Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment), a consulting firm that analyzes chemical safety. TERA often works for industry clients such as the American Chemistry Council. Concerns about its conflicts of interest gained national attention after President Trump nominated Michael Dourson, TERA’s founder, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical safety program.

In 2010, Maier co-authored a study on the risks of diacetyl, a butter flavoring that can cause lung damage in workers. Maier’s paper recommended an exposure limit of 200 parts per billion — up to 40 times higher than federal guidelines recommend. Egilman criticized Maier’s results in a 2011 IJOEH paper for not being protective enough. Maier has said that he has a research partnership with the federal scientists who suggested the lower limit. “This ongoing close relationship …does not suggest that government parties find my work lacks scientific credibility,” Maier said in a letter to the board.

Egilman said he didn’t expect to continue as editor-in-chief once his contract expired, but he and the board should have helped choose the new editor.

The publisher disagrees. Bannerman said Taylor & Francis sought advice from “a number of people we know in the field,” including one member of the IJOEH board. Bannerman explained the conversation with the board member occurred before the publisher began considering Maier.

The dispute over Maier’s hiring was first reported by Retraction Watch, a publication that tracks retractions in the academic publishing world, which went on to publish several items about unrest at the journal this spring.

Maier didn’t respond to a request for comment, but he wrote to the editorial board in May to address their concerns. He said more than 80 percent of his research funding comes from his university and the government.

“As for the future, I do not suggest any major changes in mission or scope of the journal,” he wrote. “The same types of scientific articles should continue to find a home in IJOEH.”

‘In-House Review’

Taylor & Francis’ decision in March 2017 to withdraw Egilman’s paper, published about a year earlier, was just as controversial as appointing Maier — possibly more.

Journal publishers rarely interfere in editorial decisions, said Arthur Frank, an IJOEH board member and professor at Drexel University’s School of Public Health.

“I have never, ever been in a setting where the publisher, without engaging the editorial board, made a decision unilaterally to appoint a new editor, and also made decisions to retract an article,” he said. “Publishers are in the business of printing the journal. They’re not in the business of deciding what goes into the journal.”

Egilman’s paper critiqued consulting firms that conduct research that attempts to re-create historical worker exposure data for use in toxic tort litigation. Such studies are expensive and are typically commissioned by companies to defend themselves in court, said Michaels, the former OSHA administrator.

Part of Egilman’s article examined a 2005 study co-authored by consultant Dennis Paustenbach, which simulated historical exposures to conclude that the workers who manufactured Bakelite (an asbestos-containing plastic) for Union Carbide would not have been exposed to asbestos levels that violated health guidelines. Egilman also focused on Paustenbach’s role in promoting similar types of studies, pointing to a conference speech in which Paustenbach said they often made the difference between winning and losing court cases.

“My point was that OFTEN, litigation in the United States is scientifically unwarranted,” Paustenbach wrote in regards to his speech. “When anyone is inappropriately accused of a wrongdoing, they deserve a defense … We are only hired in cases that border on being ‘almost without foundation.’ So it is not surprising that most of our results show that the plaintiff claims are incorrect.”

While Egilman has served as an expert witness for plaintiffs injured by asbestos products — and is well-known for having leaked pharmaceutical company documents to a lawyer representing plaintiffs who alleged an antipsychotic drug gave them diabetes — he has also worked on the defense side. In his paper’s disclosure, he said he consulted for Union Carbide in the company’s 1984 toxic gas leak that killed thousands of residents in Bhopal, India.

It’s unclear what prompted Taylor & Francis to withdraw Egilman’s paper.

Egilman provided ProPublica with a copy of an August 2016 email a Taylor & Francis employee sent to a third party that said Paustenbach “has been in touch to request that we retract Egilman’s critique article.” It was part of a longer email chain that discussed Paustenbach’s 2005 paper and Egilman’s 2016 paper.

In an email to ProPublica, however, Paustenbach denied requesting the retraction, and copied a Taylor & Francis manager in his response. Paustenbach said the publisher began considering a withdrawal months before that August 2016 email, and that he had been primarily concerned with correcting falsehoods in Egilman’s paper.

“I have no axe to grind with Dr. Egilman,” Paustenbach said. “I believe in the importance of a lively discussion of legitimate scientific facts or beliefs. At times, I find that Dr. Egilman doesn’t deal in facts … Egilman’s article was so flawed as to be an embarrassment to any scientist; and perhaps that is why they did not publish it.”

ProPublica reached Sara Shuman, the journal’s former deputy editor who handled the paper’s submission process. She said Egilman’s paper was peer reviewed by at least two scientists. The journal uses a double-blind system to ensure that the author and peer reviewers don’t know each others’ identities, and Shuman acted as the intermediary.

Egilman was informed about the decision to withdraw his article in a March 2017 email from the publisher: “Due to an omission of oversight, the manuscript was not subject to our in-house review prior to its publication. Subsequently we have reviewed the content, and decided to withdraw it from publication.”

In a May 25 email to the board, Bannerman, the Taylor & Francis director, said the paper “was inadvertently published before the review process was completed, and was subsequently decided to be unsuitable for publication.”

The publisher declined to define “in-house review” or comment further.

“We have said all that we can about our reasons for withdrawing this article,” a company spokesperson said. The company publishes more than 2,500 journals, and our “role is to give the communities these journals serve a voice and a space to engage in debate about their research fields. We do not have any strategy to align our titles to be for or against any particular agenda.”

Egilman said the publisher never contacted him to discuss their concerns.

Maier, the new editor-in-chief, told the board he wasn’t involved with the decision. “I have no involvement or decision authority on any manuscripts that were accepted or published prior to my tenure with IJOEH,” he wrote in a letter.

Board members said the incident, compounded by what they considered the unsatisfying explanations for it, had spurred them to action.

“The idea of summarily withdrawing a paper that’s already been reviewed and published without any explanation is outrageous,” said Castleman, the former board member. “The implication is there was some kind of horrible scientific conduct that must have happened.”

Pressing On

In addition to its complaint to the National Library of Medicine, the board has appealed to the Committee on Publication Ethics, a UK-based charity that sets journal ethics guidelines.

The board’s letter alleged instances in which Taylor & Francis violated COPE guidelines, including one that states, the “relationship of editors to publishers … should be based firmly on the principle of editorial independence.”

COPE’s co-chairman Chris Graf, director of research integrity and publishing ethics at a large journal publisher called Wiley, said COPE doesn’t comment on individual cases. COPE has no regulatory authority and doesn’t conduct investigations, but can advise publications facing ethical issues.

On Thursday, the president of the Collegium Ramazzini, an international academy of occupational and environmental health experts, said his organization “strongly supports” the board’s letter to the Library of Medicine. The academy is an invitation-only group of 180 scientists who work to bring public health research to policymakers. Nearly half of the IJOEH board members are part of the academy, as are Michaels and Monforton. The group also includes Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and former OSHA administrator Eula Bingham. The organization is named after Bernardino Ramazzini, a 17th-century physician who’s often called the “father of occupational medicine.”

Taylor & Francis has offered to hold a teleconference with the editorial board, but Castleman said the board first wants more answers in writing.

“Had they been more forthcoming, we would have certainly been willing to talk to them,” he said. “It’s very cumbersome trying to find a convenient time for so many people all over the world to agree to be available for such a conference. I felt that they were just fobbing us off, stonewalling our plain questions.”

When ProPublica inquired about the status of the three other articles Taylor & Francis had considered withdrawing, the publisher said those studies “are no longer on hold and the authors are aware of their status” — but didn’t explain whether that meant the articles had been withdrawn. Egilman said one of them was a separate article he wrote on Union Carbide, and that he withdrew that paper from IJOEH two months ago so he could submit it to another journal. He said something similar had happened to another paper, about cigarette filters that contained asbestos.

Through the tumult, the journal has continued to publish, though the rate has slowed considerably this year. The IJOEH website shows the journal publishes four issues a year, with 10 to 12 articles per issue. Yet only five papers have been published in all of 2017. Three of the five were approved by Egilman and the other two by Maier. Both are about how employees’ mental health affects stress and well-being.

The journal’s “first full issue of 2017 will be published before the end of the year,” said a Taylor & Francis spokesperson, “with other issues to follow in early 2018.”

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