Secretive influence by Monsanto in a set of papers published in the scientific journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology was so unethical that an investigation by the publisher found that at least three of the papers should be retracted, according to a series of internal journal communications. The journal editor refused to retract the papers, which declared no cancer concerns with the company’s herbicides, saying a retraction could impact last summer’s first-ever Roundup trial and harm the authors’ reputations, the emails show.
The journal communications were obtained through discovery by lawyers representing several thousand people suing Monsanto over claims that the company’s glyphosate-based herbicides cause cancer and that Monsanto has covered up the evidence of the dangers.
Unlike the internal Monsanto emails that have thus far come to light revealing the agrochemical company’s manipulation of scientific literature about its herbicides, these emails detail the inner battle within a major scientific publishing house over how it should confront Monsanto’s covert meddling. They were obtained as part of a deposition of Roger McClellan, the longtime editor in chief of the peer-reviewed journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology (CRT.)
The papers in question were published by CRT in September 2016 as an “Independent Review” of the carcinogenic potential of the weed-killing agent glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and other brands. The five papers published as part of the review directly contradicted the findings of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which in 2015 found glyphosate to be a probable human carcinogen. The 16 authors of the papers concluded that the weight of evidence showed the weed killer was unlikely to pose any carcinogenic risk to people.
At the end of the papers the authors stated that their conclusions were free of Monsanto’s intervention. Underscoring the supposed independence of the work, the declaration of interest section stated: “Neither any Monsanto company employees nor any attorneys reviewed any of the Expert Panel’s manuscripts prior to submission to the journal.”
That statement was proven false in the fall of 2017 after internal Monsanto records came to light showing extensive involvement by Monsanto scientists in the drafting and editing of the papers as well as company involvement in selecting the authors. Additionally, internal records showed direct payments to at least two of the so-called independent authors. Monsanto had a contract with author Larry Kier, for instance, paying him $27,400 to work on the papers.
In response to those revelations and questions from media outlets, CRT publisher Taylor & Francis Group launch an investigation in the fall of 2017. The newly released communications reveal that after spending months questioning the authors about how the papers came together, a team of legal and ethics experts put together by Taylor & Francis concluded that the authors had hidden direct Monsanto involvement in the papers, and done so knowingly. Indeed, some of the authors did not even fully disclose Monsanto involvement in initial questioning by Taylor & Francis during the investigation, the emails show.
The “only tenable outcome is to retract 3 of the articles; specifically the summary, epidemiology and genotoxicity papers,” Taylor & Francis’ Charles Whalley wrote to McClellan on May 18, 2018. Whalley was managing editor of the publishing group’s medicine and health journals at the time.
The internal emails show McClellan refused to accept the idea of retraction, saying that he believed the papers were “scientifically sound” and produced “without external influence” from Monsanto. He said a retraction would tarnish the reputations of the authors, the journal and his own reputation.
“I can not agree to the proposal for retraction you have offered in your memo of May 18th, McClellan wrote in response. In a series of emails McClellan laid out his arguments against retraction, saying “Retractions of the papers would do irreparable harm to multiple parties including, most of all, the authors, the Journal , the publisher and key employees such as you and, in addition, me in my role as the Scientific Editor of CRT.”
In an email dated June 5, 2018, McClellan declared that he knew Monsanto had a “vested interest” in the publication of the papers and was personally aware of Monsanto’s relationships, including compensation agreements, with the authors, and still was satisfied that the papers were “scientifically sound.”
“In my professional opinion, the five Glyphosate papers are scholarly pieces of work clearly documenting the process used to critique the IARC report and provide an alternative hazard characterization,” McClellan wrote. “The five papers are scientifically sound. it would be a breach of scientific ethics and my own standards of scientific integrity to agree to retraction of any or all of the Glyphosate papers…”
Whalley pushed back, saying that the authors of the papers were clearly guilty of “misconduct and a breach of publishing ethics,” so severe as to warrant retraction. The “breaches of publication ethics that we have identified in this case are clear breaches of fundamental and clearly defined standards, and not attributable to misunderstandings of detail or nuance,” Whalley wrote to McClellan. He said the publisher had reviewed the guidelines from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) before making the decision. “Retractions are evidence that editorial policies are working, not that they have failed,” he wrote.
Whalley and McClellan argued over the retraction for months, the records show. In one July 22, 2018 email McClellan pointed out that the first trial against Monsanto over the Roundup cancer claims was taking place at the time so the journal discussions of a retraction were “quite sensitive since the Johnson vs. Monsanto trial is underway in San Francisco.” He suggested that instead of retracting the papers, they simply correct the section at the end of the papers where the authors disclose potential conflicts.
“I urge you to agree to my recommendation to publish corrected and expanded Declaration of Interest statements and abandon the “we gotcha” approach with Retraction of the papers,” McClellan wrote to Whalley in a July 2018 email. “I will not allow my well-earned reputation to be tarnished by arbitrary and capricious actions by others.”
“In this case, we need to collectively attempt to reach agreement on an equitable outcome that is FAIR to the authors, the publisher, CRT readers, the public and me as the Editor-in-Chief and the CRT Editorial board. We must not take an approach that determines winners and losers in legal cases based on what is allowed to appear in the peer reviewed literature.”
Neither McClellan nor Whalley responded to a request for comment regarding this article.
The CRT glyphosate series was considered so significant that its findings were widely reported by media outlets around the world and cast doubt upon the validity of the IARC classification. The papers were published at a critical time as Monsanto was facing doubts by European regulators about allowing glyphosate to remain on the market and growing unease in U.S. markets as well. The 2016 series was “widely accessed,” with one of the papers in the series accessed “over 13,000 time,” according to the internal journal correspondence.
The importance of the papers to Monsanto was laid out in a confidential document dated May 11, 2015, in which Monsanto scientists spoke of “ghost-writing” strategies that would lend credibility to the “independent” papers the company wanted to have created and then to be published by CRT. Monsanto had announced in 2015 that it was hiring Intertek Scientific & Regulatory Consultancy to put together a panel of independent scientists who would review the IARC classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. But the company had pledged that it would not be involved in the review.
Though Monsanto’s involvement was revealed in 2017 Taylor & Francis took no public action until September 2018 as the publisher and editor wrestled over the retraction issue. McClellan ultimately won the argument and no retractions were made. The internal emails show that Whalley notified the 16 authors of the glyphosate papers of the decision to merely publish corrections to the articles and update the declarations of interest at the end of the papers. That Aug. 31, 2018 email states:
“We note that, despite requests for full disclosure, the original Acknowledgements and Declaration of Interest statements did not fully represent the involvement of Monsanto or its employees or contractors in the authorship of the articles. As referred to in our previous memos to you, this specifically relates to the statements that:
‘Neither any Monsanto company employees nor any attorneys reviewed any of the Expert Panel’s manuscripts prior to submission to the journal.’ and that ‘The Expert Panelists were engaged by, and acted as consultants to, lntertek. and were not directly contacted by the Monsanto Company.’
“From information you have provided to us, we now believe that neither of these statements was accurate at time of submission. This is in contradiction to declarations you made on submission and to warranties you made in the Author Publishing Agreements regarding your compliance with Taylor & Francis’ policies. To provide the necessary transparency to our readers, we will publish corrections to your articles to update their respective Acknowledgements and Declaration of Interest statements as per the material you have provided.”
In September of 2018 the papers were updated to carry an “Expression of Concern” and updates to the acknowledgements and declaration of interests. But despite the findings of Monsanto’s involvement, the papers are still titled with the word “independent.”
Whalley left Taylor & Francis in October of 2018.
The journal’s handling of the matter has troubled some other scientists.
“McClellan’s comments about why he did not retract the paper was disingenuous, self-serving, and violate sound editorial practice,” said Sheldon Krimsky, a Tufts University professor and a fellow of the Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institution. Krimsky is also associate editor for a Taylor & Francis journal called “Accountability in Research.”
Nathan Donley, a senior scientist employed by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity said the journal’s failure to retract was a failure of transparency. “This was one of the most disgraceful events in scientific publishing that I have ever witnessed,” Donley said. “What we’re left with is an expression of concern that no one will read and a blatant misrepresentation that this was somehow an ‘independent’ endeavor. This was a win for the most powerful player in the pesticide industry, but it came at the expense of ethics in science.”