Godlee, Dr Fiona FRCP  British Medical Journal  MMR/MR  Merck  Conflict of interest

Holier than Thou BMJ Editor Godlee Fails to Acknowledge Merck MMR Conflict

Holier than thou BMJ editor, Godlee, fails once again to acknowledge journal's Merck conflict in the MMR affair

By John Stone http://www.ageofautism.com/2011/08/holier-than-thou-bmj-editor-godlee-fails-to-acknowledge-merck-mmr-conflict.html#more

Following an editorial calling for tighter standards on Conflict of Interest by British Medical Journal editor Fiona Godlee, the journal has omitted to publish a letter pointing to its continuing failure to acknowledge its business association with MMR manufacturer Merck: BMJ Learning is in partnership with Merck’s information division Univadis, as pointed in these columns and AHRP by Martin J. Walker earlier this year (See here also). Godlee was forced into a limited admission of error in March in relation to BMJ’s recycling of allegations of fraud against Andrew Wakefield originally made by journalist Brian Deer in the Sunday Times just days after New International boss  James Murdoch joined the board of another MMR manufacturePreviewr, GSK, with a brief to help look after the the group's reputation  (Age of Autism James Murdoch Still Supported by GSK).

However, ultimately BMJ flunked the main issue of the Univadis/Merck connection, and only published a limited acknowledgement that they had failed to disclose the sponsorship of Merck and GSK of their annual awards ceremony, which had been mentioned by the present writer separately. This was further weakened by the fact that the disclosure, when published as a correction, only linked only to editorials in the journal and not to the articles by Mr Deer making the allegations.  In her forced reply in BMJ on-line Godlee had originally explained that they had not disclosed the links “because it did not occur to us to do so”, but in the case of the links between BMJ’s learning division and Merck’s information division they still haven’t even though by now it certainly must have done.

This is not the only area of BMJ’s insensitivity over conflict of interest in the MMR affair. Associate BMJ editor, Harvey Marcovitch, signed editorials censuring Wakefield despite also being head of GMC panels and with the case still under judicial review, while also having failed to act on the conflicts of the panel chairman in the case, Surendra Kumar (Age of Autism Harvey Marcovitch and Brian Deer and the Lord High Everything Else ). These are just part of a catalogue of bizarre and often outrageous conflicts that have marked the British establishment’s pursuit of Wakefield from the beginning (Age of Autism What's Behind Ben Goldacre and Child Health Safety MMR Files Forced Open ).To put the omission in further context Marcovitch himself had recently published on the anomaly of journals being keener on the commercial conflicts of potential authors than their own. But as for BMJ, it looks as if anything goes despite the fact that both Godlee and Marcovitch are former chairs of the Committee on Publication Ethics.

BMJ’s relationship with Merck has continued despite the exposure of the pharmaceutical company’s activities in the Vioxx affair, which included the publication of fake journal articles in collaboration with Lancet publisher Reed Elsevier and a memo which talked about destroying critical scientists “where they live”.

Here is the text of my letter, so far unpublished by BMJ:-

Leadership by example?

When recently Dr Godlee acknowledged BMJ's competing interests in the

MMR affair over the publication of articles by Brian Deer and the group’s

business association with GlaxoSmithKline and Merck she announced that

they had failed to do this because "it did not occur to us to do so" [1].

Moreover, when they did do so they only did it in a half-hearted way. They

have still not acknowledged their partnership between Merck's information

division Univadis through BMJ Learning, but only the sponsorship of Merck

and GSK for their awards, and they have only linked this information to

their editorials and not Mr Deer's articles (so anyone reading those will

be none the wiser about the journal's conflicts) [2]. Nor were these

conflicts, when exposed, the subject of an international news release like

the original story.


As I also pointed out at the time BMJ can scarcely be naieve about

the implications of this dereliction, as editorial co-author Harvey

Marcovitch had written elsewhere [3]:


"It is a paradox that the professional medical association that owns

JAMA was less than open and transparent with Lundh and colleagues about

potential financial conflicts (such as their income from industry sources)

as they expect their authors to be."


All of this leaves the public at a peculiar disadvantage, if the

rules BMJ are talking about are only for other people.


[1] Fiona Godlee, 'In response to John Stone',



[2] Correction: 'Wakefield's article linking MMR vaccine and autism

was fraudulent' http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.d1678


[3] Harvey Marcovitch, 'Editors, Publishers, Impact Factors, and

Reprint Income'



Competing interests:

Autistic son

John Stone is UK editor for Age of Autism.



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Like John Stone, I also tried to respond to the recent Godlee article, “Turning the tide on conflicts of interest”. My response (below) has failed, without explanation, to achieve a posting, despite polite inquiry on two occasions.

"Tied up in industry knots"

On 5 January 2011, Godlee et al published an editorial claiming that Andrew Wakefield's 'Early Report' published in the Lancet in 1998 was fraudulent. [1] The claims of fraud had been alleged by Brian Deer, an "investigative" journalist funded by The Sunday Times of London, a News International publication. Deer's subsequent reports in the BMJ were declared as "commissioned and paid for by the journal". In March 2011, Godlee et al published an online correction to their editorial, declaring that the BMJ should have declared industry ties to Merck and GSK *, both manufacturers of the MMR vaccine. [2] No corrections appeared on the Deer series of articles.

* It should be noted that in February 2009, James Murdoch, Chairman and Chief Executive of News Corps, Europe and Asia, became a non-executive director of GSK, to "serve as a member of GSK's corporate responsibility committee", with a brief to "review ... external issues that might have the potential for serious impact upon the group's business and reputation."

[1] Editorial: Wakefield's article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent. Fiona Godlee, editor in chief, Jane Smith, deputy editor, Harvey Marcovitch, associate editor. BMJ 2011; 342:c7452 (Published 5 January2011). http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.c7452.full

[2] Correction: Wakefield's article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent. BMJ 2011; 342:d1678 (Published 15 March 2011).

Competing interests: None declared

It's very disheartening isn't it!!? But we should not despair -as long as we have the Internet. The effectiveness of AoA and John's letter writing is demonstrated by Godlee's forced responses to Andrew Wakefield's questions being posted on AoA's comment thread, and her forced (but admittedly circumspect and incomplete) admittance of BMJ's pharma conflicts of interest.

This was Godlee's responses to the UK Government Science and Technology Committee. The topic was specialist journal articles 'peer review':-

A leading medical editor has warned that journals are rightly seen as the marketing arm of the pharmaceutical industry and they must go further to be open about where their money comes from.
Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of the BMJ group, told a select committee of the UK Parliament that “We have to acknowledge that the publishing industry has a number of different revenue streams, one of which is the pharmaceutical industry.”
Speaking before a committee hearing into peer review, Godlee was asked about the practice of many publishers producing sponsored publications – where companies can pay for special publications covering certain diseases or topics.
Such publications could be confusing to readers and it was not always clear what industry involvement was, she noted. And even traditional fully peer-reviewed medical journals should not be viewed as pure.
“It has been said that journals are the marketing arm of the pharma industry and that is not untrue; to a large extent that is true,” Godlee told the Science and Technology Select Committee.
Godlee called for more efforts towards transparency in medical publishing, especially around centralised systems for declaring conflicts of interest and making explicitly clear when industry funding has been involved.”

Thie following is from my letter to the S&T Committee. I got a reply stating that it would be copied to committee members. Whether or not they read it is open to question!!

"You will have to forgive me for finding Dr Godlee’s pious responses to the Committee (which I verified by listening to the proceedings),very hard to digest, in view of the fact that Deer’s articles were plainly commissioned by the BMJ’s pharmaceutical ‘paymasters’ and solely intended to preserve the interests of the MMR vaccine manufacturers GSK and Merck!!
However, Godlee DID admit to the Committee that journals ARE ‘the main marketing arm for the pharma industry’!! The vaccine industry makes Łbillions worldwide and Government indemnities in the UK and US means the manufacturers have few problems with litigation liabilities!!"