Friday, March 16, 2007

The Lancet: a whole new meaning

Technically speaking, a lancet is a sharp pointed, two edged surgical instrument used in venisection and for opening abscesses. It is a symbol of how medicine sometimes has to be cruel to be kind, opening wounds in order to promote healing. Of course, the lancet is better known for the medical journal of the same name. What is a bit less known, until recently, is that the publishing company that owns the Lancet, Reed Elsevier, has interests in the arms trade. One of its subsidiaries, Spearhead, organizes arms fairs. You heard correctly: a leading health journal -- the same one that published a controversial study estimating the number of Iraqi civilian deaths -- is connected to arms dealers. This is not a result of deep investigative journalism either. It has been public knowledge for the last couple of years. It is even on Reed Elsevier's wikipedia entry, forgodssake.

Former BMJ editor Richard Smith, in a recent editorial published in the Royal Society of Medicine entitled 'Reed Elsevier's hypocrisy in selling arms and health', calls for authors and readers to act. Acting means: don't buy subscriptions to Reed Elsevier journals, and don't write for them. That's a tall order, though: Elsevier publishes everything from Cell to Social Science and Medicine. It also owns ScienceDirect, which is one of the largest online collections of published scientific research in the world, containing over 8 million articles from over 2000 journals. Perhaps the better route is continuous public shaming until hopefully Reed Elsevier stockholders scurry into less conspicuously compromising investments.

No better time than the present.

Dear Reed Elsevier:
It is difficult to express the depth of suffering that the arms trade involves, particularly in developing countries. Where I work, in the Congo, an estimated 4 million people -- the majority non-combatants -- have died from war-related causes in the last 15 years. This is a terrible injustice, and by failing to divest from companies that (among other vectors of death) peddle cluster bombs, you place your company on the wrong side of the moral equation, as well as making yourself a laughing stock of the global health community. Unless you want people to think 'Reed Elsevier' when they see African children holding AK-47's, rethink your portfolio.

[Disclaimer: The author of this post once published a research ethics article in the Elsevier journal Trends in Parasitology in 2004. He would like to point out that this was before he heard about Elsevier's connections with the arms trade, and that absolutely no one read the article anyway.]


Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

Hello, I'm sure I am being obtuse, but I can't find how to scroll back into your archives -- can you advise? I am writing here in a personal capacity as it is the weekend, but during the week I'm an editor at Nature (there are some journals out there that aren't owned by Elsevier, and NPG journals are among them ;-) )
Nice post.
Best wishes
Maxine (MAXINE L CLARKE AT GMAIL DOT COM if you have time to drop me an email with a hint as to finding your date archives)

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