Updated: Slate retracts story on Glenn McGee and Celltex following lawsuit threats, as McGee resigns from company

Slate has retracted a story about controversial bioethicist Glenn McGee and his involvement with Celltex Therapeutics, a Texas-based company that says it extracts and banks stem cells from people’s fat. Where the story by University of Minnesota bioethicist Carl Elliott once appeared now sits this editor’s note:

On Feb. 17, 2012, Slate published an article titled “The Celltex Affair: An Ethics Scandal Strikes the World of Bioethics.” Because of shortcomings in the editorial process, the article did not meet Slate’s standards for verification and fairness and should not have been published. We withdraw the article and apologize to Dr. Glenn McGee.

As with other stories about McGee — including this 2008 one from Scientific American, which Ivan commissioned and edited, detailing how McGee left a post at the Alden March Bioethics Institute under a cloud — this one about his role at Celltex is complicated. The American Journal of Bioethics, which McGee co-founded, is involved, and Texas governor (and former Republican presidential candidate) Rick Perry even plays a part. Elliott’s colleague Leigh Turner has a good summary here.

Nature reported yesterday that despite being Celltex’s “first president for ethics and strategic initiatives,” McGee

declined to answer Nature’s questions about the company’s knowledge of or involvement in the clinical use of its stem cells, nor would he talk about the legality and ethical nature of such practices.

At about 11 p.m. Eastern last night, well-known bioethicist Art Caplan, for whom McGee worked at Penn, tweeted a link to a related editorial in Nature along with some commentary:

beyond sleazy adult stem cell industry is a mess bit.ly/ziste5

And at 11:45 p.m. Eastern, McGee himself tweeted:

Enough. I resigned from #Celltex Therapeutics on & effective 2/28/2012. I am preparing timely, lengthy, pointed comments on the whole matter

Of note: Some readers may recall a well-publicized 2001 retraction by Slate of a story about “monkeyfishing.” In that case, the magazine left the original story intact, but added the following on top of it:

In February 2007, writer Jay Forman contacted Slate to confess that his entire story was untrue. See this article.

It has been established that key details of this article were fabricated. Click  here for more information and Slate’s apology.

*(My point here is not to compare the two stories, but to compare how Slate dealt with them — in one case leaving the story intact but adding context, while in the other removing the story entirely.)

We’ve tried to contact key players in this new story, but given the hour of this initial post, we don’t expect to hear back from them for a bit. We’re particularly interested in which parts of the story couldn’t be verified, and what prompted the retraction. We’ll update with anything we hear.

Update, 7 a.m. Eastern: Slate editor David Plotz responded to an email requesting comment:

Because of shortcomings in our editorial process, the article did not meet Slate standards. That is all Slate is going to say about the matter.

Update, 9 a.m. Eastern, 3/1/12: Elliott tells me that the retraction came after McGee threatened Slate with a lawsuit:

Actually, except for minor factual errors, like the address of the journal — each of which I was happy to correct — there were no problems with verification.  The withdrawal seemed to me to be driven entirely by fear of litigation.  Their main fear seemed to be my referring to McGee’s unpleasant departure from Albany Medical College, which had been reported in Scientific American.  

Also added sentence with an asterisk in front of it about comparing two retractions.

Update, 12:15 p.m. Eastern, 3/1/12: Jim Romenesko links to a letter from Celltex to Slate requesting the removal of the story.

Update, 4 p.m. Eastern, 3/1/12: William Heisel has posted Elliott’s rebuttal of Celltex letter.

Update, 5 p.m. Eastern, 3/1/12: Heisel has also posted a letter from lawyers representing McGee. It’s similar to the one from Celltex. Key line:

If the article is not pulled by close of business Tuesday, February 28, 2012, We will take appropriate legal action on Dr. McGee’s behalf.

11 thoughts on “Updated: Slate retracts story on Glenn McGee and Celltex following lawsuit threats, as McGee resigns from company”

  1. I think Slate handled these responses appropriately, even though it seems inconsistent. Where possible, editors should leave an auditable trail of the original error — appropriately annotated so someone stumbling on it will understand that it’s incorrect.

    If the whole story’s the problem, then the Monkeyfishing approach — leave the whole story up but indicate that it’s discredited — is best.

    But there are always going to be situations where your story screwed up so badly that you have left yourself vulnerable to legal action. That appears to be the case with the Celltex piece. In those cases, you really have no choice but to take the material down. This is appropriate if (as Slate seems to be saying here) you’re in the wrong. If editorially you think your story is defensible, of course, you always have the option of leaving it up and facing/contesting the legal challenge.

  2. Hey, that’s me they’re fishing for!
    Looks like the retraction was due to legal threats from McGee, which explains its complete disappearance. Unlike the monkeyfishing story, which is incredible on its face, but works well as fiction (recalling Hunter Thompson, oddly.)
    This McGee person has been known to falsify portions of his resume(48 pages long), forge signatures of co-authors, misrepresent a volunteer position as “chief”, engage in nepotism, and so on. He seems to be a completely shameless self-promoter. It appears that he studied bioethics in order to find out what he could do wrong in order to get ahead. I can also faintly smell a right wing extremist point of view here; anyone have an opinion on this??
    From a forensic psychiatric point of view, he seems to have difficulty distinguishing his aspirations from reality and possibly be bipolar as well as highly intelligent (a frequent combination; there must be some evolutionary advantage to the production of this variant.)
    Seriously: There is, hidden away here, another instance of a company profiting by venturing into FDA-unapproved territory. In this case, a company has a prematurely publicized “stem cell treatment” (when, in fact, the idea of developing such treatments was widely reported and repeated long before any such treatments were actually available.) The company markets its treatment through word of mouth and charges whatever the market will bear (in this case, allegedly $25,000.) The fact that Texas governor Perry had this treatment (for a “back complaint”) really helps the word of mouth along and enables the application of government pressure upon the regulatory agency that is supposed to police this behavior (The Texas Medical Board, which has finalized a plan to have “independent review boards” approve individuals who want to give this treatment.)
    A dead give away as to the true motives of these people is the statement that they have treated over 10,000 people since 2006, yet they are unable to produce even a case series of more than ten patients. Think of the progress that would have been made if they had just kept records of all those patients from before and after their treatments; even without a placebo group, it would be easy to make a comparison with the “natural history” of patients not given stem cells.
    A “consecutive patient series” is not as good as a placebo-controlled study, but it is the only ethical thing to do if you are firmly convinced of the value of your therapy and want to convince other physicians that it is the right thing to do.
    Instead, these people just found other countries where they could treat these patients without supervision, and charged whatever the patient was willing to pay. This constitutes preying on desperate, gullible well-to-do sick people who will do anything and pay any amount of money for a chance at relief. It is a negative statement about McGee’s character that he signed on as an ethicist for these people.
    One question: why was McGee denied tenure at U Penn in 2005? He had already been characterized as “one of the most famous bioethicists in the world” in 2003, so what the frak?

  3. Having read Eller’s letter to Slate I have to agree with Scott. The errors that Eller points out are far from “minor factual errors”. Interestingly, no where in the letter is there any theat of a lawsuit. I’m interested to know where Elliot got that information. This seems to be more a case of a retraction due to a poor decision to publish a story full of unsubstantiated, poorly researched, and sensationalistic reporting. If there was a legal threat, it would seem to be justified even if only a portion of Eller’s points are accurate. Given that SLATE took well over a week to retract the story, I’m guessing that their own investigation substantiated more than a few of Eller’s claims.

  4. Who’s Eller?
    Where did I get the idea that McGee threatened legal action?
    Anywhere we can find the original article before it was disappeared (a cache or something?)

  5. Eliot is interesting also. Go to the U Minn biography of him linked above. Then check out an article he wrote with the title “Adventure! Comedy! Tragedy! Robots!…” He writes well, though he seems to be a dystopian.

    I doubt very much, based on this one article, that he philosophically approved of what McGee was clearly doing, both on the grounds that he was being paid to work for a medical industry(which is a conflict of interest) and that the product involved was untested(which is more of a human rights violation.)

    One would think that, being Slate, they wouldn’t retract the article unless they found that something Eliot said about McGee wasn’t documented. That’s the kind of stuff I really want to see–unverifiable rumors.

  6. I read the letters… Eliot had a response to every charge they made. (Eller is the CEO of Celltex, an interesting choice to write a defense of McGee.) The only explanation is that Slate was afraid of the lawyers, because after reading Eliot’s response to Eller’s charges, I don’t see a problem. If there was, changing a few words, maybe a couple of sentences would have fixed the factual inaccuracies. They must be expensive lawyers. I think I’ll go hide.

  7. puzzled monkey – you are right. I think Slate was afraid of a lawsuit, so they retracted the article out of fear.

    It’s only a matter of time the entire company becomes a scandal. I smell a couple hundred million dollar lawsuit here.

    1. So, never write true stories about those who can sue you? Slate might just close down right away.

  8. I have a theory that will, I hope, get me sued:

    1. Slate did not publish, under circumstances in which they might otherwise have been willing to fight, because those lawyers exercised an unusual power: that of Texas Governor Rick Perry.
    2. McGee resigned from Celltex because his name had lost all its ethical credibility, with them or anyone else, because Celltex believed that Eliot’s allegations in the article were true.
    3. Celltex is run by a fringe right wing individual or group; AJOB is from now on highly suspect.

    [To Ivan: best retraction ever!]

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