The JAMA versus Jonathan Leo debacle worsens, should Catherine DeAngelis apologize?

JAMA forcefully responded to the recent allegations of a small university professor going behind their back to mainstream media outlets.

As MedPage Today reports, JAMA sought to preempt any form of criticism, saying, “The person bringing the allegation will be specifically informed that he/she should not reveal this information to third parties or the media while the investigation is under way.”

I’m not sure how enforceable that is. Perhaps anyone criticizing JAMA shouldn’t expect their papers to be published in the journal. And they also should be prepared for a not-so-subtle call to their superiors, which is exactly what happened to whistle-blower Jonathan Leo.

Furthermore, they also called out the Wall Street Journal’s David Armstrong, in effect calling him a liar, for reporting that editor-in-chief Catherine DeAngelis called Leo a “nobody and a nothing.” Let’s see how Mr. Armstrong responds.

It’s a heavy-handed response, and shows how out-of-touch JAMA is with a world where information moves at blog and Twitter-speed. Dr. Leo based his assertions on information found via Google within the public domain, and not on any confidential sources. That JAMA thinks it can squelch this information while it conducts a months-long internal review is a naive worldview that is stuck in the 1990’s.

Indeed, internist Roy Poses calls the whole situation “saddening,” and adds that, “the journal’s leadership seems to have somehow lost their way. Instead of trying to constructively respond to criticism, they now seem intent on punishing the critics. I hope they find their compass soon, before an important medical institution really is irreparably damaged.”

JAMA should have apologized to Dr. Leo, and acknowledged their internal reviews had failed in this instance. Like how hospitals have dealt with medical errors, they could have used this event to improve their conflict of interest policies, and make their reviews more transparent.

Instead, they chose to stonewall criticism, and have made a clear attempt to crush future dissent. That approach is doomed to fail, especially in the digital era of health literature where print media is on the slow road to extinction.

As hospitals have found out, transparency, along with an apology, is the best approach to take when mistakes are made. Medical journals would be wise to aim for that same standard.