Editor of Medical Journal of Australia fired after criticizing decision to outsource to Elsevier

Stephen Leeder
Stephen Leeder

Public health expert Stephen Leeder has been ousted as editor of Australia’s top medical journal after he questioned the decision to outsource the journal’s production and other tasks to publishing giant Elsevier.

Leeder, emeritus professor at the University of Sydney, told the Medical Observer he was asked to leave when he and the journal’s publisher, AMPCo, couldn’t see eye to eye on the decision:

Professor Stephen Leeder confirmed he had not stepped down but was “pushed out” after a “serious disagreement” with the AMPCo board about its decision to outsource sub-editing, production and administrative functions to global publisher Elsevier.

The decision to outsource, announced April 23, raised Leeder’s concerns about workflow at the journal:

“The disagreement was that you could split the journal’s editorial staff into two groups – namely those who did the production and those who did the editing,” Professor Leeder told MO. “This mistook the nature of the collegiality that we had. Those people made major contributions… you can’t just knock them off.”

He said he was sad to leave. “I had a firm belief we were doing a good job.”

Many of Leeder’s colleagues are not pleased with this decision; according to the MO, most of the journal’s editorial advisory board is considering leaving, including member Michael Horowitz:

Speaking to MO today, Professor Horowitz said he expected the majority of the board to resign imminently if Professor Leeder was not reinstated.

He said the outsourcing drive had come as a surprise to the board – which was not properly consulted on the decision – as well as to Professor Leeder and his team.

He said the board had been “very impressed” with Professor Leeder, whom he described as “a man who it is appropriate to call outstanding”.

Deputy editor Tania Janusic has apparently already resigned after she was appointed acting editor in chief by AMPCo.

Some members wrote to AMPCo, a subsidiary of the Australian Medical Association, that they were concerned about Elsevier’s ethics. In 2009, it was revealed that Merck had earlier paid the Australian office of Elsevier to produce a “fake” journal, which included positive articles about the company’s products.

A spokesperson for Elsevier declined to comment, on the grounds that Elsevier was not involved in any decision related to MJA’s editor. The board at AMPCo apparently considered the concerns about partnering with Elsevier, and still voted to work with the publishing giant, according to the MO:

AMPCo said in a statement on Thursday that after “considerable due diligence” the board “resolved to outsource sub-editing, production and some administration functions of the MJA to Elsevier to ensure the continued success of the journal. Any queries that were put to the Board about Elsevier were completely and comprehensively addressed to the full satisfaction of the Board.”

Former MJA editor Annette Katelaris, for whom Leeder took over in 2013, has also criticized the decision to outsource production to Elsevier.

Richard Smith, former editor in chief of the British Medical Journal and now director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative  chair of the board of icddr,b (formerly International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease. Bangladesh), told us these events could seriously hurt the journal:

The AMA has a long history of sacking editors. Each time they do so they damage the MJA further. Steve Leeder was willing to take on the journal because he didn’t depend on the AMA for either prestige or income. He would do what was right for the journal, and having done so he’s been fired. The future of the MJA must be highly uncertain. Who would want to edit it with such a history and uncertain future?

Smith, who spoke at the recent Centenary celebration of the MJA, is also a member of the board of directors at the Center for Scientific Integrity, Retraction Watch’s parent not-for-profit organization.

We’ve reached out to Leeder, AMPCo, and the MJA, and will update if they respond.

Update 5:51 p.m. 5/1/15 : We heard back from Leeder, who said he “was not informed” of the publishing board’s decision to seek bids for outsourcing MJA’s production.

All bids were prepared with no interviews with me or my editorial team. I further argued that we could, given my experience over three decades managing majority health and academic organisations, fix the budget.  I was also deeply concerned with Elsevier’s history of illegal and unethical behaviour. I refuse to work with them. The board perhaps for ideological reasons that were in my view of poor quality from a managerial and financial management perspective nevertheless decided to outsource to Elsevier and terminated my contract without warning last week.

Update: 2:25 p.m. eastern 5/2/15: We’ve received more reactions from Leeder’s colleagues.

Paul Zimmet, founder and Director of the International Diabetes Institute, tells us:

Professor Leeder’s dismissal is a disgrace as he is one of the most distinguished medical academics in Australia, an outstanding editor and commentator. Apart from this, the physical handling of his dismissal by the Board of AMPCo, being immediately sacked and led out of the office, was undignified and unnecessary. Who would want to work for such people?

Zimmet added that he has spent months on a campaign against Elsevier and its publication The Lancet, after the journal published an article about the Israel-Palestine situation that he believes contained serious (and undisclosed) conflicts of interest.

I am seriously concerned too that as much of the MJA’s published content can be viewed for free online, as Elsevier is one of the world’s most profitable publishing houses, its past history in this regards suggests the open nature of research published through the MJA is in danger from the outsourcing.

Professor Gary Wittert, a member of MJA’s Editorial board, and I have sent a letter to the Australian Medical Association president Professor Brian Owler calling for an inquiry into how the outsourcing came to be awarded to Elsevier. It reads:

“We find it disturbing that AMPCo has taken this action despite the record of Elsevier. We call on the AMA to investigate the circumstances of this arrangement struck between AMPCo and Elsevier and its implications for ethical publishing in our national medical journal.”

Wittert also responded, noting that he is Editor in Chief of the Journal Obesity Research and Clinical Practice, an Elsevier Journal. “My position as Editor in Chief is on behalf of The Asia Oceania Association for the Study of Obesity. I maintain this position out of responsibility to the Society, but have made my position absolutely clear to Elsevier.”

We also received a forwarded letter from Peter Arnold, former chairman of the federal AMA, among other functions, that he sent to current AMA president Brian Owler. It reads, in part:

Unless you can give us members a rational, economic, and above all else, moral explanation of this astonishing move, I shall have to join OUR dismissed journal staff by refusing to continue the gratis contributions I have made, in good faith, to our journal over the last half-century. I am sure that I will not be alone in this response.

You can read the entire letter here.

Update 6:49 p.m. 5/3/15: The AMA released a statement today to explain its decision to outsource MJA’s production, including a quote from Owler:

“Unfortunately, agreement could not be reached between the AMPCo Board and Professor Leeder on the tough business decisions AMPCo needed to make to ensure the future of the MJA.

“As a result, the AMPCo Chair terminated Professor Leeder’s tenure as Editor-in-Chief of the MJA.

“There have been a number of comments in the media, particularly the medical press and social media, about the circumstances of Professor Leeder’s termination. Many of these comments are inaccurate and not based on fact.

“A significant number of the MJA Editorial Advisory Committee, some of whom are AMA members, have also resigned. I have thanked them for their service, and asked them to reconsider. I hope that they do so.”

AMPCo board chairman Richard Allely also released an Open Letter to the Medical Community, explaining the financial reasons behind the decision and the timeline of events.

Hat tip: Sophie Scott, ABC

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5 thoughts on “Editor of Medical Journal of Australia fired after criticizing decision to outsource to Elsevier”

  1. Moving to publisher platforms is a good strategic move for many journals. The journal can lower editorial expenditures by exploiting the economy of scale the publisher’s operation brings. It’s increasingly evident that just by virtue of being open access, a journal is not necessarily going to get noticed and have an impact. So much content is now open access that merely being open access is no longer special, and getting noticed often requires or at least benefits greatly from extra investment in, and expert management of, the journal content. It also requires attaching valued-added features to the content and adding features that enable or effectuate the promotion of the content. I’d wager that many in North America have never heard of the Medical Journal of Australia before, but after it appears on the Elsevier Platform, a platform that thousands of libraries link and connect to, the journal will greatly increase its visibility and impact.

  2. Beall, what you are referring to is Elsevier’s prowess. This is a completely different issue to what some AMPCo members’ concerns about Elsevier’s ethics “Elsevier’s ethics”, as also reflected by Leeder’s comments: “I was also deeply concerned with Elsevier’s history of illegal and unethical behaviour. I refuse to work with them.”

  3. I’ve been working in a US library for decades and yes we have used he Medical Journal of Australia , subscribed to the Medical Journal of Australia and locate Medical Journal of Australia articles in Pubmed for as long as I can remember without the assistance of Elsevier.
    So how much was your wager of North Americans never hearing of the Medical Journal of Australia, Jeffrey?

  4. I personally think the aversion to Elsevier stems from several facts. Previous unethical behaviour as mentioned by Leeder is of course one aspect. Another one is that it is such a big player in the market. Elsevier enjoys profit margins of between 30 and 40%. And people do ask if that’s the best place to dump considerable amounts of tax-payers money. Because that’s really largely where these profits come from, tax-payer financed institutional subscribers. And that’s the point where me and many others would contest Jeffrey Beall’s point of value-added features thanks to publishers. That might have been true in the pre-internet era, but today all I need to be happy is the relevant literature to be indexed in pubmed. There I find what’s relevant for me simply by the content. I don’t care much for the type of information carrier aka journal at all. So if it brings relevant content, I will read the antarctic medical journal. The stupid hunt for impact factors as a career benchmark is probably the reason why research still uses the traditional publishing scheme.

    This all might not be connected to this specific case, but I do think Elsevier has a multifactorial image problem….

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