Richard Smith, former editor of the
British Medical Journal, has
jested that instead of scientific peer review, its rival
The Lancet had a system of throwing a pile of papers down the stairs and publishing
those that reached the bottom. On another occasion, Smith was challenged
to publish an issue of the
BMJ exclusively comprising papers that had failed peer review and see if anybody
noticed. He replied, “How do you know I haven’t already done
As Smith’s stories show, journal editors have a lot of power in science
- power that provides opportunities for abuse. The life science industry
knows this, and has increasingly moved to influence and control science
The strategy, often with the willing cooperation of publishers, is effective
and sometimes blatant. In 2009, the scientific publishing giant Elsevier
was found to have invented an
entire medical journal, complete with editorial board, in order to publish papers promoting the
products of the pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck. Merck provided the
papers, Elsevier published them, and doctors read them, unaware that the
Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine was simply a stuffed dummy.
Fast forward to September 2012, when the scientific journal
Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) published a study that caused an international storm (Séralini, et al. 2012). The study, led by Prof Gilles-Eric Séralini of the University
of Caen, France, suggested a Monsanto genetically modified (GM) maize,
and the Roundup herbicide it is grown with, pose serious health risks.
The two-year feeding study found that rats fed both suffered severe organ
damage and increased rates of tumors and premature death. Both the herbicide
(Roundup) and the GM maize are Monsanto products. Corinne Lepage, France’s
former environment minister, called the study
orchestrated campaign was launched to discredit the study in the media and persuade the journal
to retract it. Many of those who wrote letters to
FCT (which is published by Elsevier) had conflicts of interest with the GM
industry and its lobby groups, though these were
not publicly disclosed.
The journal did not retract the study. But just a few months later, in
early 2013 the
FCT editorial board acquired a new “Associate Editor for biotechnology“, Richard E. Goodman. This was a new position, seemingly established
especially for Goodman in the wake of the “Séralini affair”.
Richard E. Goodman is professor at the Food Allergy Research and Resource
Program, University of Nebraska. But he is also a former Monsanto employee,
who worked for the company between
1997 and 2004. While at Monsanto he assessed the allergenicity of the company’s
GM crops and published papers on its behalf on allergenicity and safety
issues relating to GM food (Goodman and Leach 2004).
Goodman had no documented connection to the journal until February 2013.
His fast-tracked appointment, directly onto the upper editorial board
raises urgent questions. Does Monsanto now effectively decide which papers
on biotechnology are published in
FCT? And is this part of an attempt by Monsanto and the life science industry
to seize control of science?
To equate one journal with “science” may seem like an exaggeration.
But peer-reviewed publication, in the minds of most scientists, is science.
Once a paper is published in an academic journal it enters the canon and
stands with the discovery of plate tectonics or the structure of DNA.
All other research, no matter how groundbreaking or true, is irrelevant.
As a scientist once scathingly said of the “commercially confidential”
industry safety data that underpin approvals of chemicals and GM foods,
“If it isn’t published, it doesn’t exist.”
Photo: Richard E Goodman, University of Nebraska
Goodman’s ILSI links
The industry affiliations of
FCT‘s new gatekeeper for biotechnology are not restricted to having
worked directly for Monsanto. Goodman has an
ongoing involvement with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). ILSI
is funded by the multinational GM and agrochemical companies, including
Monsanto. It develops industry-friendly risk assessment methods for GM
foods and chemical food contaminants and inserts them into government
ILSI describes itself as a public interest non-profit but its infiltration
of regulatory agencies and influence on risk assessment policy has become
highly controversial in North America and Europe. In 2005 US-based non-profits
and trade unions
wrote to the World Health Organization (WHO) protesting against ILSI’s
influence on international health standards protecting food and water
supplies. As a result, the WHO
barred ILSI from taking part in WHO activities setting safety standards, because of
its funding sources. And in Europe in 2012, Diana Banati, then head of
the management board at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), had
to resign over her undisclosed long-standing involvement with ILSI (Robinson
et al. 2013).
Goodman’s appointment to
FCT is surprising also for the fact that the journal already has expertise
in GM food safety. Of the four senior editors, José L. Domingo
is a professor of toxicology and environmental health and author of two
comprehensive reviews of GM food safety studies (Domingo 2007;
Domingo and Bordonaba 2011). Both reviews expressed skepticism of the thesis that GMOs are safe.
Consequently, it is far from clear why
FCT needs an “associate editor for biotechnology”, but it is clear
why Monsanto would have an interest in ensuring that the “Séralini
affair” is never repeated.
Editing the scientific record: The case of Paul Christou
FCT is not the only academic journal that appears to have been captured by
commercial interests. After the initial campaign failed to get
FCT to retract the Séralini study, the journal
Transgenic Research published a heavy-handed critique of the study and of the researchers
themselves (Arjo et al., 2013). The lead author of that critique was Paul Christou.
Christou and co-authors castigated the editor of
FCT for publishing the study, calling it “a clear and egregious breach
of the standards of scientific publishing”. They insisted that the
journal editor retract the study “based on its clearly flawed data,
its breaches of ethical standards, and the strong evidence for scientific
misconduct and abuse of the peer-review process”. “Even a
full retraction of the Séralini article” wrote Christou,
“will not cleanse the Internet of the inflammatory images of tumorous
The same writers further implied that the Séralini study was “fraudulent”,
that the researchers failed to analyse the data objectively, and that
the treatment of the experimental animals was inhumane.
This is not the first time Christou has attacked scientific findings that
have raised doubts about GM crops. In 2001 Ignacio Chapela and David Quist
of the University of California, Berkeley, reported in the journal Nature
that indigenous Mexican maize varieties had become contaminated with GM genes (Quist and Chapela, 2001). This issue was, and remains, highly controversial since Mexico
is the genetic centre of origin for maize. In an exact parallel with the
Séralini study, an
internet campaign was waged against Chapela and Quist demanding that the journal retract
the study. Then Christou, just as he was later to do with the Séralini
study, attacked Chapela and Quist’s paper in an article in
Transgenic Research. The title said it all: “No credible scientific evidence is presented
to support claims that transgenic DNA was introgressed into traditional
maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico” (Christou, 2002).
Responding to the campaign,
Nature editor Philip Campbell asked Chapela and Quist for more data, which they
provided, and arranged another round of peer review. Only one reviewer
in the final group of three supported retraction, and no one had presented
any data or analysis that contradicted Chapela and Quist’s main
asserted, “The evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication
of the original paper”. Some subsequent investigations, testing
different samples, reported finding GM genes in native landraces of Mexican corn (Pineyro-Nelson et al. 2009), while others did not (Ortiz-Garcia et al. 2005).
Paul Christou, in contrast, probably did not have much trouble getting
either of his critiques published in
Transgenic Research. He is the journal’s editor-in-chief. And, like Goodman, Christou
is connected to Monsanto. Monsanto bought the GM seed company Agracetus (Christou’s former employer) and Monsanto now holds
patents for the production of GM crops on which Christou is
named as the inventor. It is normal practice to declare inventor status on patents
as a competing interest in scientific articles, but Christou did not disclose
either conflict of interest - his editorship of the journal or his patent
inventor status - in his critique of the Séralini study.
The Ermakova affair: Preemptive editing of the scientific record
Not only can journal editors prevent the publication of research showing
problems with GM crops in their own journals - they can effectively prevent
publication elsewhere. In 2007, the leading academic journal
Nature Biotechnology featured an extraordinary attack on the work of Russian scientist, Irina
Ermakova (Marshall, 2007). Her laboratory research had found decreased
weight gain, increased mortality, and decreased fertility in rats fed
GM Roundup-tolerant soy over several generations (Ermakova, 2006; Ermakova, 2009).
The editor of
Nature Biotechnology, Andrew Marshall, contacted Ermakova, inviting her to answer questions
about her findings, which she had only presented at conferences. He
told her it was “an opportunity to present your own findings and conclusions
in your own words, rather than a critique from one side”. Ermakova agreed.
The process that followed was as deceptive as it was irregular. The editor
sent Ermakova a set of questions about her research, which she answered. In
due course she was sent a proof of what she thought was to be ‘her’
article, with her byline as author.
However, the article that was finally published was very different. Ermakova’s
byline had been removed and Marshall’s substituted. Each of Ermakova’s
answers to the questions was followed by a lengthy critique by four pro-GM
scientists (Marshall, 2007). The proof sent to Ermakova, now revealed
as a ‘dummy proof‘, had not included these critical comments. Consequently, she was
denied the chance to address them in the same issue of the journal. And
in the final article the editor had preserved the critics’ references
but removed many of Ermakova’s, with the effect that her statements