Editor's Choice

Editorial independence at the BMJ

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.329.7457.0-g (Published 08 July 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:0-g
  1. Richard Smith, editor (rsmith{at}bmj.com)

    “Editorial freedom,” is famously “the freedom to publish those of the proprietor's prejudices that don't upset the advertisers.” That accurately describes the state of editorial freedom in many newspapers, but the BMJ's editor has enjoyed great independence. The BMA has had a strong tradition of editorial independence, particularly since a celebrated dust up between the editor and the association half a century ago. Our independence will be illustrated next week when we publish some pungent criticisms of the association.

    Much of the editorial independence has flowed from the editor also being the chief executive of the BMJ Publishing Group and on the same level as the secretary of the association. This is unusual, and the BMA has decided that the positions of editor and chief executive will be split and that the chief executive of the BMJ Publishing Group will report to the group chief executive (formerly the secretary) of the BMA. Where exactly the new editor will fit in the new firmament is not yet clear, but there is provisional agreement that new structures and processes will be needed to safeguard editorial independence.

    Everybody supports editorial independence in principle, although it sometimes feels to editors as if the deal is “you can have it so long as you don't use it.” Problems arise when editors publish material that offends powerful individuals or groups, but that's exactly why editorial independence is needed. Journals should be on the side of the powerless not the powerful, the governed not the governors. If readers once hear that important, relevant, and well argued articles are being suppressed or that articles are being published simply to fulfil hidden political agendas, then the credibility of the publication collapses—and everybody loses.

    But editorial freedom—like clinical freedom—cannot be total. I couldn't turn the BMJ into a soccer magazine because I'd got bored with medicine. Freedom must be accompanied by accountability, and how best might both be achieved for the BMJ? The optimal answer is probably an oversight committee like that created by the American Medical Association after the firing of an editor of JAMA. The committee should comprise widely respected figures from medicine and serve as a buffer between the editor and the BMA, providing a judgment on the editor's performance and settling disputes.

    Such a committee—and the committee that appoints the editor—should, I believe, include people from outside Britain. The BMJ is increasingly an international journal, and most contributors and readers are from outside Britain. The BMA is the legal owner of the journal but also a steward of the journal on behalf of a wider health community.

    Ultimately, I suggest, editorial independence is a space in editors' heads, a complex function of their personality, courage, power, and the pressures they feel from owners, business people, and others. I hope that the BMA can—for its own good and that of the international community—make that space as large as possible for my successor.

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