The entire 22-member Editorial Board of the International Journal of Occupational and Environment Health resigned this morning after a months-long struggle with the Journal’s new owners who have “have acted in a profoundly unethical fashion” and have moved the worker-oriented publication to a more corporate focus.
The fate of the IJOEH is important to worker health in this country. A recent article in ProPublica explains that under the new owner, the IJOEH is moving toward favoring “corporate interests over independent science in the public interest.”
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.”
“I think the IJOEH articles were threatening to that whole industry.” – Dr. David Michaels, George Washington University
The problem began when the British-based Taylor & Francis, one of the largest publishers of academic journals, bought IJOEH in 2015. Last year, without consulting the Editorial Board, Taylor & Francis hired a new editor-in-chief, Andrew Maier. Maier, an environmental health professor at the University of Cincinnati, runs a program for research fellows at TERA (Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment), a consulting firm that analyzes chemical safety. Tera was founded by Michael Dourson, a former tobacco industry defender, and Trump’s highly controversial (and possibly unsuccessful) nominee for EPA Assistant Administrator for Toxic Substances.
The publisher claimed to have contacted one Board member, Jukka Takala, about Maier’s appointment, although according to Retraction Watch, Takala claims that “I was never consulted on Dr Maier and had no information about him.”
In addition to bypassing the Board on the appointment of Maier, the new owners also withdrew and peer-reviewed article by journal’s former editor-in-chief David Egilman — after it has been published. Egilman’s article criticized Union Carbide Corporation’s efforts to oppose workers’ claims of asbestos exposure. The publisher also flagged three other articles that had been approved while Egilman was editor-in-chief.
Egilman’s article was critical of industry consultant Dennis Paustenbach who had conducted a study for Union Carbide which attempted to show that workers who had contracted mesothelioma from asbestos exposure from the company’s product, Bakelite, had received very low levels of asbestos exposure. Egilman concluded that Paustenbach’s “study published asbestos fiber exposure measurements that underestimated actual exposures to create doubt about the hazards associated with the manufacture and manipulation Bakelite.”
I’ve never seen this kind of arrogance from a publisher who didn’t deal with the board of a journal in terms of transitions like this. — Arthur Frank, Drexel University
According to Retraction Watch, which originally wrote about this story in April, IJOEH board member Arthur Frank of Drexel University said:
“I’ve been publishing since the 1960s. I’ve been at this a long time. And I’ve never seen this kind of arrogance from a publisher who didn’t deal with the board of a journal in terms of transitions like this.” Frank added that he has a paper in the review pipeline at the journal that he resubmitted with minor revisions, and has waited months for a decision — a process that normally takes weeks. His main concern, he said, is that the journal will move in a direction in which it becomes more friendly to corporate interests.
Retraction Watch is a blog that focuses on “Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process.”
In response to these actions, the entire 22 member Board and six former Board members wrote last week to the National Library of Medicine, describing the problems and requesting that the NLM “rescind the listing of IJOEH in Medline, require the new owner of IJOEH, Taylor & Francis, to submit a new application for listing of IJOEH in Medline, and then reject that renewal application when it is submitted.”
As ProPublica explains, “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.”
According to The Scientist, such actions are rare:
“I have not before heard of an editorial board asking the NLM to remove a journal from PubMed,” which includes the Medline database, Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, tells The Scientist in an email. “I’m afraid that outside interests are trying to turn this scholarly journal into a communication medium for industry views. We already know that this is the case with a journal like Critical Reviews in Toxicology.”
The resignation letter, addressed to Managing Director Ian Bannerman, states that “We have been unsatisfied with our interactions with you and Taylor and Francis, especially regarding the appointment process for the new Editor-in-Chief, and the unilateral withdraw of approved or printed articles by the publishers. We do not wish to be party to the apparent new direction that the journal appears to be moving towards, and will not be a party to these developments.”
Meanwhile, workers are left without an scientific advocate.
“I can’t think offhand of [another] pro-worker occupational safety and health journal,” [Joe] LaDou [who founded IJOEH in 1995] 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.