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UK: Spat erupts between medical journals

by Andrew JackFinancial Times
March 16th, 2007

A rare spat has broken out in the usually decorous world of medical journals. In a highly critical editorial, the BMJ, the former British Medical Journal, accuses Reed Elsevier, the publishing group, of “warmongering” through its international arms-fairs division, and calls on authors to boycott the Lancet, its flagship academic publication, until the links are severed.

The strongly worded article is not a direct attack on the Lancet, which under its outspoken editor Richard Horton launched the polemic by drawing attention to Reed Elsevier’s arms promotion activities in an article in September 2005.

But the BMJ’s move marks an escalation of a growing debate in the health community. Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ and joint author of the article, said: “It’s an unresolvable conflict that a business promoting health is making money out of a business that is damaging health.”

Patrick Kerr, a spokesman for Reed Elsevier, said the group organised about 10 arms shows each year, generating revenues of a little more than 0.5 per cent of its total annual sales of Ł5.2bn last year.

He said the group respected the editorial independence of its journals, adding: “We do not see any conflict between our connections with the scientific and health communities and with the legitimate defence industry trade exhibitions we run.”

Ms Godlee denied there was any element of professional rivalry in the attacks, stressing that the two journals were not direct competitors. She insisted that the editorial was driven by ”sisterly concern for a fellow journal”.

The Lancet’s original article in 2005 called for Reed Elsevier to withdraw from arms-fair activities and led to a trenchant article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine earlier this year by Richard Smith, the former editor of the BMJ.

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust earlier this year sold its stake in Reed Elsevier for Ł2m, citing its objection to the arms promotion activities of the group, and several academics have launched petitions denouncing the link.

Mr Horton, the Lancet’s editor, said: “Part of Reed Elsevier’s corporate message is that it is a partner of the health science community.

“You can’t be a trusted partner if you are selling small arms, cluster bombs and other instruments that lead to massive civilian casualties.”

However, he spoke out against the BMJ’s call for scientists to boycott his journal, arguing that persuasion was having an effect and that Reed Elsevier would respond to the pressure. He pointed out that it had already banned cluster bombs at its next large London show this September.

The BMJ, with a print circulation of 120,000 and 1.2m online users, makes its money largely from pharmaceutical industry advertising and is targeted at general practitioners and hospital generalists.

The Lancet, which is has a growing focus on global health and targets specialists, has a 50,000 print circulation and 1m online users and makes much of its money from subscriptions and reprints.



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