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How “Conflicted” Are Medical Journal Editors?

Open Payments Logo for OBuzzMedical journal editors wield substantial power in deciding what gets published and potentially implemented in clinical practice. Theoretically, those decisions could be influenced by “commercial” relationships. To help ascertain the extent of such relationships, a recent retrospective observational study in the BMJ examined payments by US pharmaceutical and device manufacturers to 713 editors from 52 influential medical journals in 26 specialties, including orthopaedics.

Using data from the Open Payments database from 2014 and information gleaned from a survey of journal editors-in-chief, Liu et al. discovered the following:

  • Among 713 editors, 50.6% received some “general payments” (i.e, money deposited directly into personal bank accounts) from pharmaceutical or medical device manufacturers in 2014.
  • The median general payment to journal editors was $11, while the mean general payment was $28,136.
  • The highest median payments were found among journal editors in the specialties of endocrinology ($7,207), cardiology ($2,664), gastroenterology ($696), rheumatology ($515), and urology ($480). The median payment among orthopaedics editors was $121.
  • The two highest payments to individual editors were >$1 million, and those editors were in the specialties of cardiology and—you guessed it—orthopaedics.

Beyond the dollar-and-cents data, the authors discovered that only one-third of the 52 journal websites had readily accessible statements of conflict-of-interest (COI) polices. Among the journals with COI policies, 75% said they have formal recusal processes that exclude an editor from handling manuscripts where he/she has a conflict.

According to an accompanying appendix, among the 34 JBJS editors included in the analysis (i.e., the US-based editor-in-chief, deputy editors, and associate editors), six had received general payments >$50,000 in 2014. The JBJS COI statement asserts that if conflicts are disclosed that might affect an editor’s ability to adjudicate a manuscript fairly, “the paper will be reassigned to another editor.” It also states that “the Editor-in-Chief has no known conflicts of interests or competing interests and makes the final decision regarding acceptance or rejection of all manuscripts submitted.”