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eBMJ -- The firing of Brother George

The firing of Brother George

The AMA has damaged itself by sacking JAMA's editor

The American Medical Association damaged itself and medical journals when last week it sacked George Lundberg, the editor of its journal JAMA. Lundberg, who had edited JAMA for 17 years, was sacked for fast tracking publication of a study showing that many college students in the United States do not think of oral sex as "having sex." The study, published in the issue of 20 January, was fast tracked because of its relevance to President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial. According to the New York Times, Dr E Ratcliffe Anderson, the executive vice president of the AMA, said that he didn't object to the content of the paper but to its acceleration. "I happen to believe that Dr Lundberg was focused on sensationalism here, not science."[1]

In sacking its editor the association is reverting to type. Editors used to be regularly browbeaten, sacked, or edged out for upsetting the deeply conservative membership of the association, and as a result the journal had little international respect. Lundberg turned a journal that was an embarrassment into a respected major journal. Yet while JAMA has flourished the AMA has withered. Its membership has fallen steadily to 38% of American doctors, and it is perceived as a reactionary organisation concerned only with self interest. (The BMA, in contrast, has over 80% of British doctors in membership and is seen as more than a doctors' trade union.) The already poor image of the AMA was then tarnished further by the "Sunbeam affair," which led to several senior executives leaving the association over a sponsorship deal that went wrong.[2] Anderson has been brought in to "clean up the organisation," but firing Lundberg is a poor start.

Editors do upset their associations, as the leaders of the BMA and the Massachusetts Medical Society (owners of the New England Journal of Medicine) will testify. Unsettling the establishment, one of my predecessors argued, is an editor's duty.[3] The challenge to the association leadership is to put the long term development of the journal, which can come only with editorial independence,[4] before short term political irritation. The AMA leadership has failed that challenge.

Richard Smith Editor, BMJ
  1. Kolata G. The trial of the president: beyond the beltway. Editor of AMA journal is dismissed. New York Times 1999;16 January:1.
  2. McDaniel CG. AMA chief forced to resign. BMJ 1997;315:1560.
  3. Clegg H. Someprinciples and problems of modern editing. International Record of Medicine 1960;173:414-25.
  4. Smith R. Editorial freedom: empty slogan or holy grail. In: Delamothe T, Smith J, Smith R, eds. Balancing act: essays to honour Stephen Lock. London: Keynes Press, 1991.