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Medical Journal of Australia editor sacked over opposition to Elsevier outsourcing

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h2392 (Published 05 May 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h2392
  1. Marie Mcinerney
  1. 1Melbourne

The editor in chief of the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) has been sacked over his opposition to the outsourcing of the journal’s subediting and production functions to the global publishing company Elsevier.

The dismissal of the respected Australian medical academic Stephen Leeder last Wednesday prompted the resignation of 19 members of the journal’s editorial advisory committee and the journal’s senior deputy editor, Tania Janusic. The medical editor of the online newsletter MJA InSight, Ruth Armstrong, has also given notice over the decision.

Two committee members, Gary Wittert and Michael Horowitz, both professors at the University of Adelaide, said, “We consider that the MJA was extremely fortunate to have the services of an editor of this calibre and regard his stewardship of the MJA to have been exceptional.” They said that they expected Australia’s medical profession to be “appropriately outraged” by the sacking of Leeder by the Australasian Medical Publishing Company, a fully owned subsidiary of the Australian Medical Association. The committee members also said that they were “appalled” at the way Leeder was dismissed, a process he described as “pretty brutal.”

“It was the most humiliating professional experience I’ve ever had, I think, being marched up to my office and supervised (while I packed up my desk) and then marched out of the building as if I was a 10 year old with my hands caught in the cookie jar,” said Leeder, who is an emeritus professor of public health and community medicine at the University of Sydney.

The Australian Medical Association and the Australasian Medical Publishing Company have issued statements disputing the account but without giving details. They said that the journal needed operational efficiencies to secure its future.

The 21 member editorial advisory committee comprises leading clinicians, academics, and researchers from across Australia. All but two have resigned, saying that the publishing company’s handling of the outsourcing process raised serious questions about the future and reputation of the 101 year old peer reviewed journal. Differences with the company were also behind the departure of Leeder’s predecessor, Annette Katelaris, in 2013.

Committee members said that they shared Leeder’s “ethical concerns” about Elsevier, which publishes over 2500 science, health, and technology journals around the world, including the Lancet. They said that an over-riding concern was a 2009 scandal when Elsevier’s Australian arm was found to have published a “dummy” journal in Australia from 2002 to 2005 that was funded by the drug company Merck. “That is very worrying,” said Caroline de Costa, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at James Cook University College of Medicine in Cairns.

Committee members were also worried about the loss of talent, experience, and expertise, with up to half of the journal’s staff of 24 expected to lose their jobs.

Brian Owler, president of the Australian Medical Association, described Leeder as “a leading light of medical publishing” but backed the publishing company’s decisions, saying that the journal’s financial position in recent times had been “perilous.”

“Unfortunately, agreement could not be reached between the AMPCo [Australasian Medical Publishing Company] board and Professor Leeder on the tough business decisions AMPCo needed to make to ensure the future of the MJA,” Owler said.

On Sunday the company published an “open letter,” saying that it was “deeply concerned that the medical community is receiving misinformation about the rationale and nature” of its outsourcing decision. It said that it had discussed all concerns raised by the MJA editorial team with Elsevier and was “satisfied that the issues were fully addressed.”

The company would have “no editorial role” in the journal, the company’s chair, Richard Allely, said.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h2392

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