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Researchers question publishing ethics of leading economics journal

Update: The Harvard Health Policy Review site is back up with an apology and disclaimer for not seeking a response from the JHE editors.

A Harvard Health Policy Review article that details two researchers’ account of unethical editing at the Journal of Health Economics (JHE) mysteriously has gone missing from the Internet (but not entirely–here’s the PDF). Actually, the journal’s entire site has been taken down.

The article is full of drama that rivals a John Grisham thriller. It involves the Ivy League, corporate greed, a suggestion of tainted science, and legal threats — which I’m guessing may not be over.

In the "missing" article, University of Pennsylvania sociologist Donald Light and health economist Rebecca N. Warburton, of Canada’s University of Victoria, recount their two-year ordeal to publish a critique of a 2003 study published in JHE, in which Tufts researchers — using confidential data supplied by drug companies — estimated research and development costs for a new drug at $802 million.

Light and Warburton had several criticisms of this article, namely the undisclosed conflicts of interest of the Tufts authors. But they say the JHE editors thwarted their efforts to publish a fair critique.

The "missing" article details the back and forth between the JHE editors (three of whom are Harvard professors) and the original authors. Light and Warburton called it "ultimatum editing," and said the editors "violated almost every ethical standard set for editors."

At one point in the process, Light and Warburton even threatened to sue. Alan Millstein agreed to make a legal case on behalf of the authors and drafted a complaint. “He did not expect much in monetary damages, but expected to win before a jury, revealing to the world how leading economists handled an independent critique of a key article concerning the high costs of drug development form an industry-sponsored research center.

Merrill Goozner wrote about the conflict in his post, "Where’s Harvard’s Missing Health Policy Journal?" PharmaGossip also writes about the missing journal here.

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Wow. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Money taints every industry even academia, but the blazen disregard for ethical behavior by “professors” – one of the most highly respected professions – is still a big disappointment. Shame on you JHE editors!