Shenanigans at the Medical Journal of Australia








Dr Stephen Leeder didn’t take the job of Editor in Chief for the income or to improve his resumé. With a career spanning more than five decades, including a stint as dean of medicine at the University of Sydney, he was already one of the most well-known and respected academic physicians in Australia. It was, instead, an objective that guided his decision — two objectives, actually.

Those objectives were expressed in the very first issue of the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), published more than a century ago: to keep physicians abreast of advances in their profession; and to provide evidence to inform discussions on health policy. These values aligned with his own, so in April of 2013, Leeder accepted the position of editor-in-chief of the journal.

He enjoyed the work — the writing, seeking comment on current events in medicine, tweaking the journal’s design. Encouraging authors, whether young or not-so-young, also made the job rewarding. He had plans to improve the journal, to introduce more formats, to usher it further into the information age.

Those plans, however, were curtailed on Apr. 29, when he was fired by the board of the Australasian Medical Publishing Company (AMPCo), the subsidiary of the Australian Medical Association that publishes the journal. Leeder had disagreed with the board’s decision to outsource some production, copyediting and administrative work to Elsevier, a large academic publishing house.

“I was escorted from the termination interview to my office, asked to identify my goods for packing and dispatch to my home, and then escorted from the building. No member of the AMPCo board was present. Virtually all the editorial team watched this aghast,” Leeder wrote in an email to Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ). “We were making progress. That has been cut short. I feel bereaved and deeply hurt.”

In response to a request for comment on the situation, a public relations representative for AMPCo forwarded two media releases to CMAJ. The first, dated Apr. 23, announced the decision to outsource work to Elsevier. The change was made to improve efficiency and provide the journal access to Elsevier’s “expertise and digital experience to the production process.” AMPCo promised there would be “no change in the MJA’s editorial independence and control over content development.” The second press release, dated Apr. 29, stated that Leeder “will conclude his tenure” effective immediately because he and the board could not agree on “the necessary steps required” to ensure the journal’s future success.

“There are many ways to cut costs, but cutting core staff has been shown repeatedly not to work,” Leeder wrote in an email. “MJA could in my view work with an enlightened, entrepreneurial board to create new revenue lines, as many association-owned journals have done.”

Word of Leeder’s dismissal spread quickly, not only in Australia’s medical community but around the world. And it raised many questions among those interested in scholarly publishing. How can medical journals remain financially viable in an age of declining advertising, subscriptions and medical-association membership? Does outsourcing to an academic publishing company affect editorial quality? Is reducing staff without an editor-in-chief’s consent a violation of editorial independence?

More than a few people are also wondering how the MJA will attract a new editor-in-chief, considering that, less than three years ago, Leeder’s predecessor had also been fired after a dispute with the AMPCo board. As Dr. Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ, put it on his blog: Who would want to run a journal that goes through editors like a professional soccer team goes through coaches?

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