The editor of one of the world’s most important scientific periodicals, the New England Journal of Medicine, is being ousted because of policy differences with the publisher of the journal, the Massachusetts Medical Society, it was announced this week.
Dr. Jerome Kassirer, editor in chief for the last eight of the journal’s 177 years, opposed the publisher using the venerable journal’s good name to sell other magazines and materials, according to sources close to the publication. Kassirer has long disagreed with the society over promoting its health newsletters and magazines as coming from the “publishers of the New England Journal of Medicine,” the sources said.
The action, which sent shock waves through the Internet-linked universe of academic medicine, marked the second time this year that a prominent medical editor was fired. Dr. George Lundberg, longtime editor of the Journal of the American Medical Assn., was fired last January for publishing an opinion survey on oral sex in the midst of President Clinton’s impeachment trial.
Significantly, Kassirer criticized Lundberg’s firing in a May editorial, terming it an “ominous precedent.”
The Massachusetts society puts out 12 other publications, including professional journals like AIDS Clinical Care and consumer newsletters like Heart Watch.
The dispute over promoting those products by linking them to the prestigious New England Journal culminated Sunday in the announcement that the medical society would not renew Kassirer’s employment contract next March and would put him on sabbatical Sept. 1.
The Massachusetts Medical Society, which has owned the New England Journal since 1921, said the journal’s content under Kassirer is not at issue. Instead, the non-renewal of his contract reflects “honest differences of opinion over administrative matters,” said spokesman Frank Fortin. He declined to offer further details, saying only that all the group’s publications are dedicated to editorial quality.
Kassirer declined to discuss details of his ouster. But in a 3 1/2-page annual report to the medical society last year, he sharply criticized the idea of leveraging the journal’s name to increase revenue.
“To see the Journal in terms of the revenues it can generate both directly and indirectly, downplaying its larger social role, is dangerous,” he wrote in the report, obtained by The Times.
“Any revenue-enhancing arrangements that carry the Journal’s name and any attempt to overprice the Journal or its products . . . could be viewed as attempts to exploit the Journal’s reputation for monetary rewards to the Society. This could irreversibly taint the public trust in the Journal.”
That is a view held by Dr. John Harrington, dean of the Tufts University School of Medicine, who resigned from the Massachusetts Medical Society’s publication committee two weeks ago to protest the handling of the matter. “This was a conflict between the business and editing sides of medicine, and the bean counters won.”
At the same time, some experts in commercial publishing questioned the assumption that slapping the journal’s name on other products somehow soiled it.
Kassirer, 66, is the 39th editor of the New England Journal since its founding in 1812. Closely followed by physicians, researchers, policymakers and the news media, the journal has 235,000 subscribers.