Media Comment: Horton does not hear a who

Emails openly available in Google groups show that two of the authors, Manducca and Ang, have sympathies with the views of David Duke, a white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard.

By ELI POLLAK
October 12, 2014 22:51
Rambam Medical Center

The Lancet editor Prof. Richard Horton at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center. (photo credit: COURTESY RAMBAM MEDICAL CENTER)

 
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Presumably most of us enjoyed reading to our children Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears A Who. Horton the elephant has big ears and so picks up even the faintest sounds. He hears something from a small speck of dust almost flying into a pool, saves it and protects it from the other animals who threaten to boil it. Deciding that voices must be raised in unison, Horton finally succeeds despite various obstacles and the planet of Whoville is saved.

Seuss understood human behavior. The world too often does not respect the different, the strange. Worse, they try to eliminate it. It takes the effort of all involved to prevent disaster. In his book, it was the voice of one lad that made all the difference. Seuss was an optimist, believing that the world really does listen, and is willing to admit error.

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What does all this have to do with an op-ed on the media? Usually, we write about the Israeli media, but in the spirit of Succot, considered to be the universal festival, we dedicate this article to an international story, one which has everything to do with media ethics in which Israel is but a minor player.

The faithful readers of this paper would be by now familiar with a real-life Horton, Professor Richard Charles Horton, the editor of the high-profile scientific journal, The Lancet, considered to be one of the world’s leading medical journals. The Lancet does not shy away from political issues. It has been at the center of many a controversy, not least the question of the exorbitant subscription prices that Elsevier, the Dutch-based company that publishes it, demands.

Much has been written in this newspaper as in most other Israeli media outlets, about the July 28 letter to the editor published in The Lancet under the title “An open letter for the people of Gaza.” As reported in The Jerusalem Post and as researched by NGO Monitor, the central authors of the letter, Paola Manduca, Iain Chalmers, Derek Summerfied, Mads Gilbert and Swee Ang, are not sweet innocents whose only purpose in life is to save lives. But this is not the issue to which we wish to relate.

We don’t intend here to claim that the war in Gaza was or was not humane or justified. Rather, in the context of the concept of “media,” The Lancet, also belongs to this field. Just as the media is guided (or rather should be guided) by an ethics code, so too should a scientific journal that permits itself to become a platform for political issues. Without truth in publishing, science as we know it today could not be maintained.

One of the most powerful tools that editors of scientific journals have at their disposal is the retraction of a paper. The pressure on scientists to have their research appear in prestigious publications cannot be overstated. Their professional life often depends on it. “Publish or perish” is a truthful description of scientific life. Once in a while, articles are retracted. Sometimes due to honest error, but all too often, it is due to the falsification of facts, such as laboratory results. Reprisal is harsh for when the article is retracted and the institution involved usually opens a commission of inquiry. Frequently a consequence is that the guilty author’s professional life is terminated. Such a process, tragically, has even ended with suicide.

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Elsevier’s code of ethics is clearly stated: “Public trust in the peer review process and the credibility of published articles depend in part on how well conflict of interest is handled during writing, peer review, and editorial decision making. Conflict of interest exists when an author (or the author’s institution), reviewer, or editor has financial or personal relationships that inappropriately influence his or her actions [such relationships are also known as dual commitments, competing interests, or competing loyalties]. These relationships vary... The potential for conflict of interest can exist whether or not an individual believes that the relationship affects his or her scientific judgment. Financial relationships... are the most easily identifiable conflicts of interest and the most likely to undermine the credibility of the journal, the authors, and of science itself. However, conflicts can occur for other reasons, such as personal relationships, academic competition, and intellectual passion.”

The authors of the Gaza letter, as demanded from all people who submit letters to The Lancet, had stated that “We declare no competing interests.” This was far from the truth, and Professor Horton must have known this. In an appendix to their letter, the authors delineated their “past experience,” which clearly pointed out that they were in a state of “personal relationships that inappropriately influence his or her actions.” As mentioned in the NGO Monitor report, the peoplesvoice.org website reported that on February 2, 2009 that The Lancet’s Global Health Network published an article of Dr. Swee Ang and Dr. Ghassan Abu Sitta entitled “The Wounds of Gaza.” The Network, in its introduction to the article noted that “Two surgeons from the UK... managed to get into Gaza during the Israeli invasion. Here they... conclude that the people of Gaza are extremely vulnerable and defenseless in the event of another attack.“ On March 2, 2009, the journal removed the article stating, “We have taken down the blog post ‘The Wounds of Gaza’ because of factual inaccuracies.”

A cache of emails openly available in Google groups show that two of the authors, Manducca and Ang, have sympathies with the views of David Duke, a white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard. Wasn’t this sufficient for turning on all the red lights at The Lancet? In fact, it went even further and on August 28 published a sequel by the same authors, “Israel–Gaza conflict – Authors’ reply” in which they stated, “We declared no conflicts since none of us has any relevant financial interests.”

Professor Horton and Elsevier have ample reason for retracting both July 28 and August 28 letters. By refraining from doing so, they are violating one of the most important standards of conduct of the scientific community and their own ethics publishing code. Many in the community have raised their voices. Horton, who was invited to Israel by Rambam Hospital made some sounds of regret, but as we have all been taught by Maimonides, regret is not sufficient, it needs action. As of the writing of this letter, neither Horton nor Elsevier retracted the letters.

One of us is the chairman of the Chemical Physics Department at the Weizmann Institute of Science and for fifteen years a member of the advisory editorial board of an Elsevier publication, Chemical Physics. He resigned from the board, stating that “I find it my duty to do the little I can, to try and make sure that such a breach of public trust, which harms our scientific community, does not go unanswered.”

Our real life Professor Horton, did not hear the “who.” Dr. Seuss would be disappointed.

The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).

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