[Editorial] Medical journals should not avoid political issues that have a bearing on health
From the 12 May 2015 British Medical Journal editorial
In April, Reed Elsevier, publishers of the Lancet, received a complaint written by Professor Mark Pepys and signed by 396 physicians and scientists, including five Nobel Laureates.1 They protested that the Lancet was being used for political purposes and for “publication of deliberately false material which deepens polarization between Israelis and Palestinians.”
The most recent example of what was termed this “political vendetta” was the July publication, during the latest Israeli assault on Gaza, of an “Open letter for the people in Gaza.”2 They wrote that the letter “contains false assertions and unverifiable dishonest ‘facts,’ many of them libellous,” and that its authors had failed to declare possible conflicts of interest. The complaint insisted that the July letter be retracted (disagreeing with the Lancetombudsman’s decision3) and that it contravened the code of the Committee on Publication Ethics (disagreeing with a former chair of the committee4). It asked for the support of all scientists and clinicians “on whom they [Reed Elsevier] depend for their business,” adding “none of us is under any obligation to submit and review material for publication in their journals or to serve on their editorial or advisory boards.”
An email chain soliciting support for this complaint was more explicit.5 In it Pepys accused the July letter of “viciously attacking Israel with blood libels echoing those used for a thousand years to create anti-Semitic pogroms” and being “written by dedicated Jew haters.” He suggested that the letter “would have made Goebbels proud” and that “anybody who was not a committed anti-Semite would firstly not have published Manduca [lead author of the July letter] and secondly would have retracted instantly when her long track record of blatant anti-Semitism were [sic] exposed.” Two days before the complaint, the title of the email chain was modified to read “DO NOT CITE The Lancet in your work—Their content includes fraudulent data.”6
The July letter included a UN estimate of the number of Gazan children killed up to that date during the Israeli bombardment,7 which the Pepys email implied was exaggerated.
Medicine cannot avoid politics
These events raise two issues. The first is the appropriateness of medical journals discussing political issues that have bearing on health, including civilian mortality and morbidity.
The second issue is the similarity between this complaint’s attempt to stifle coverage of the conflict in Gaza and previous examples of writing campaigns provoked by articles in medical journals critical of Israeli policies, including allegations of hyperbole, accusations of antisemitism, and threats of boycott.
The reports published by the UN and others all point to the need for an independent investigation into the conflict by international teams of humanitarian, arms, and legal experts to determine whether and by whom—from either side of the conflict—violations of international human rights and humanitarian law were committed. The effect of this war on civilian mental health, morale, and assets is magnified by the cumulative burden of still destroyed houses and livelihoods dating from previous conflicts. As a deputy editor of The BMJ has pointed out, “Future generations will judge the journal harshly if we avert our gaze from the medical consequences of what is happening to the occupants of the Palestinian territories and to the Israelis next door.
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