Kerry Breen. The Australian Medical Association vs. The Medical Journal of Australia.

Troubles at the Medical Journal of Australia and the birth of ‘Friends of the MJA’

The Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) has been in existence for over 100 years and has become the most important national publication for every aspect of the health and health care of Australians. It is owned by the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and is published by the Australasian Medical Publishing Company (AMPCo), a wholly owned subsidiary of the AMA. AMPCo makes a profit on its Medical Directory* but, like other journals of medical associations around the world, makes a loss with the MJA. The loss is subsidised by the annual membership fees of AMA members and the current subsidy per member is believed to be approximately $80 per member. Annual membership of the AMA costs up to $1446. [*The Medical Directory is the only available comprehensive listing of all doctors, with information about qualifications, special interests, practice addresses, publications etc.]

In early May, 2015, AMA members, and the medical profession generally, learnt via the media that the AMPCo Board had sacked its Editor-in-Chief, Professor Stephen Leeder without warning and had contracted with international publishing conglomerate, Elsevier, to publish and subedit the MJA(see (http://www.smh.com.au/national/medical-journal-editor-sacked-and-editorial-committee-resigns-20150503-1myr8q.html). The reason for sacking Professor Leeder was stated to be his unwillingness to work with the AMPCo Board in the outsourcing move to Elsevier. The justification given for outsourcing was to reduce costs. No information has been provided about the terms of the Elsevier contract. The future of the entire editing and subediting staff of the MJA remains unclear. In response to the news, eighteen*of the 22 members of the Editorial Advisory Committee of the MJA resigned, along with two full-time deputy editors. [* A nineteenth has since resigned.]

Senior members of the medical profession were astonished at these events and extensive media coverage resulted. Adverse coverage also appeared in Canada, USA, UK, India and France. In response to widespread concern within the medical profession, a group known as Friends of the MJA established a web site http://www.friendsofmja.net.au/ with the purposes of providing interested parties with all the available background information on this matter and of assessing the level of support for the actions of AMPCo.

To date, over 350 people, including many senior members* of the medical profession and of allied professions who rely on the MJA, have used the website to sign on as ‘Friends of the MJA. These people are listed on the website. Not one has supported the AMPCo actions. [The group includes 124 full professors and 65 doctors who have been awarded Australian honours for services to medicine.]

Initially, the dismay and distress over the actions of AMPCo centred on two aspects: (a) how such an effective and highly respected Editor-in-Chief could be not listened to by the Board of AMPCo and be summarily sacked and (b) the selection of Elsevier as a publishing partner. AMPCo responded by claiming that “due diligence” had been undertaken with regard to Elsevier but declined to comment on whether the four AMPCo Board members were fully aware of Elsevier’s track record (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cost_of_Knowledge and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsevier).

While these two aspects are still of deep concern, a much more important issue has emerged, namely the effect of a working relationship with Elsevier on access to the research findings of publicly (taxpayer) funded research. Internationally, boycotts of Elsevier have been sponsored by researchers and even government in reaction to Elsevier’s pricing and related policies. (see http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/aug/29/academic-publishers-murdoch-socialist and https://unlockingresearch.blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=192). This issue, together with the lack of any reassurance that a future editor of the MJA will have editorial independence from the AMPCo Board, and that the AMPCo Board itself will be free of interference by the AMA leadership of the day, make many in the medical profession fearful for the future of the MJA.

The Steering Committee of Friends of the MJA have asked that the AMPCo Board decisions be reversed, that a new Board be appointed and that an independent expert be commissioned to advise the new AMPCo Board on the best way forward from here. In the absence of any willingness of the AMA leadership to revisit these ill-judged decisions, the AMPCo Board must, at the very least, be restructured to bring in additional members with experience in medical publishing and a charter of independence for the Editor must be agreed upon. Without these latter two minimal steps, it is highly unlikely that a new editor* of standing will be recruited, making the future of the MJA bleak. [*Note: The MJA was expelled from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors after the previous editor was sacked in 2012. It has not been readmitted.]

As at 10 July 2015, the leadership of the AMA and the AMPCo Board have been unmoved by these protests and instead have responded by criticising the Friends as being “mates” of Professor Leeder and being intent on harming the MJA.

Dr Kerry Breen (convenor of the Steering Committee of Friends of the MJA) may be contacted via friendsofmja@friendsofmja.net.au . He is a Specialist Physician who has been a member of the AMA for fifty years and a regular contributor to and reviewer for the MJA. He currently holds a post of Adjunct Professor in the Department of Forensic Medicine at Monash University. He is a Past President of the Medical Council of Australia, a Past President of the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria and a Past Chair of the Australian Health Ethics Committee of the NHMRC.

More information, including material issued on behalf of the AMA and AMPCo can be found at http://www.friendsofmja.net.au/ where readers can also register their view and sign on as Friends of the MJA.

 

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