Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Goodman affair: Monsanto targets the heart of science

 As Smith’s stories show, journal editors have a lot of power in science – power that provides opportunities for abuse. The life science industry knows this, and has increasingly moved to influence and control science publishing.

The strategy, often with the willing cooperation of publishers, is effective and sometimes blatant. In 2009, the scientific publishing giant Elsevier was found to have invented an entire medical journal, complete with editorial board, in order to publish papers promoting the products of the pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck. Merck provided the papers, Elsevier published them, and doctors read them, unaware that the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine was simply a stuffed dummy.

Fast forward to September 2012, when the scientific journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) published a study that caused an international storm (Séralini, et al. 2012). The study, led by Prof Gilles-Eric Séralini of the University of Caen, France, suggested a Monsanto genetically modified (GM) maize, and the Roundup herbicide it is grown with, pose serious health risks. The two-year feeding study found that rats fed both suffered severe organ damage and increased rates of tumors and premature death. Both the herbicide (Roundup) and the GM maize are Monsanto products. Corinne Lepage, France’s former environment minister, called the study “a bomb”.

Subsequently, an orchestrated campaign was launched to discredit the study in the media and persuade the journal to retract it. Many of those who wrote letters to FCT (which is published by Elsevier) had conflicts of interest with the GM industry and its lobby groups, though these were not publicly disclosed.

The journal did not retract the study. But just a few months later, in early 2013 the FCT editorial board acquired a new “Associate Editor for biotechnology”, Richard E. Goodman. This was a new position, seemingly established especially for Goodman in the wake of the “Séralini affair”.

Richard E. Goodman is professor at the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program, University of Nebraska. But he is also a former Monsanto employee, who worked for the company between 1997 and 2004. While at Monsanto he assessed the allergenicity of the company’s GM crops and published papers on its behalf on allergenicity and safety issues relating to GM food (Goodman and Leach 2004).

Goodman had no documented connection to the journal until February 2013. His fast-tracked appointment, directly onto the upper editorial board raises urgent questions. Does Monsanto now effectively decide which papers on biotechnology are published in FCT? And is this part of an attempt by Monsanto and the life science industry to seize control of science?

To equate one journal with “science” may seem like an exaggeration. But peer-reviewed publication, in the minds of most scientists, is science. Once a paper is published in an academic journal it enters the canon and stands with the discovery of plate tectonics or the structure of DNA. All other research, no matter how groundbreaking or true, is irrelevant. As a scientist once scathingly said of the “commercially confidential” industry safety data that underpin approvals of chemicals and GM foods, “If it isn’t published, it doesn’t exist.”

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The Goodman affair: Monsanto targets the heart of science

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