Emails Reveal Science Publisher Found Papers On Herbicide Safety Should Be Retracted Due to Monsanto Meddling

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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  launched 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 Monsanto’s direct  involvement in the papers, and had 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,” McClellan wrote.

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.”

Click here to read 400-plus pages of the emails.  

A Story Behind the Monsanto Cancer Trial — Journal Sits on Retraction

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What “ghostwriting” by Monsanto means, how it has influenced, and still is influencing, material found in peer-reviewed scientific journals

This article was originally published in Environmental Health News.

By Carey Gillam and Nathan Donley

Consumers and journalists around the world were stunned earlier this month when Monsanto, after being forced in a court of law for the first time to defend the safety of its popular weed killer Roundup, was found liable for the terminal cancer of California groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson.

The unanimous 12-member jury found that Mr. Johnson’s exposure to Monsanto’s weedkiller was a “substantial” contributing factor to his disease and that there was “clear and convincing” evidence that Monsanto acted with “malice or oppression” because the risks were evident and Monsanto failed to warn of those known risks.

Aside from dueling expert testimony on both sides, the jury was provided with internal company emails and work plans indicating that Monsanto had been corrupting the scientific record by ghostwriting literature asserting safety.

As the jury’s decision sets in, and thousands of additional plaintiffs who have filed similar suits wait for their day in court, it is worth taking time to understand exactly what “ghostwriting” by Monsanto means, how it has influenced, and still is influencing, material found in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

We offer this example:

When the scientific journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology (CRT) published a series of papers reviewing the carcinogenic potential of weed-killing agent glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, in September 2016, the findings were so significant that they were widely reported by media outlets around the world.

The papers, published in a special issue of CRT entitled “An Independent Review of the Carcinogenic Potential of Glyphosate,” 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 authors of the 2016 review found that the weight of evidence showed the weed killer was unlikely to pose any carcinogenic risk to people.

The findings were critical to Monsanto – the company was facing doubts by European regulators about allowing glyphosate to remain on the market. As well, Monsanto was facing a growing mass of lawsuits claiming its weed killer caused people to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Sixteen scientists from “four independent panels” signed their names to the published work, declaring to readers 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.”

It has since become evident that these papers were anything but independent. Internal Monsanto documents forced into the public spotlight through litigation show that the papers were conceptualized from the outset as a deceptive strategy for Monsanto. One of Monsanto’s top scientists not only reviewed the manuscripts but had a hand in drafting and editing them. The finished papers were aimed directly at discrediting IARC’s classification.

In one internal email, Monsanto’s chief of regulatory science, William Heydens, told the organizer of the panel: “I have gone through the entire document and indicated what I think should stay, what can go, and in a couple spots I did a little editing.”

The internal documents show that Heydens even argued over statements that he wanted included but that author John Acquavella deemed “inflammatory” and “not necessary” criticisms of IARC. Draft documents show Heydens’ edits contradicted Acquavella’s edits even though Heydens was not supposed to have even reviewed the papers. Heydens went so far as to state: “I would ignore John’s comment” and “I don’t see a reason for deleting the text that John did below.”

Other edits show Heydens attempting to control the tone of the manuscript, stating: “The deleted statement below has nothing to do with IARC criticism and should be put back in, John over-stepped the bounds here” and “I can live with deleting the text below, assuming that exposure text above … is added back in.” He also argued for putting a deleted phrase back in because it gave “clarity about IARC’s approach.” “This is not inflammatory, it is descriptive,” he wrote.

The importance of the papers to Monsanto as a tool to counter IARC’s classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen was laid out in a confidential document dated May 11, 2015, naming several of the scientists who could be used as authors to give the papers credibility. The internal documents speak of “ghost-writing” strategies aimed at using non-company scientists as authors to lend credibility to the findings.

When placed under oath in a deposition, Heydens acknowledged that the manuscripts were sent to him and he read “parts of some of them,” prior to their submission to the journal. He said he did not “recall” whether or not he made the 28 edits that plaintiffs’ attorneys counted in the internal records.

All of this was among the evidence presented to jurors in San Francisco Superior Court as they considered Johnson’s claims. But the evidence of ghostwriting and misconduct have far broader implications than one lawsuit.

How many ghostwritten papers declaring pesticide safety are littering the scientific literature? And given the evidence of misconduct in this instance, why are these papers still in publication? Why has there been no retraction, no clarification, no correction to the obviously deceptive disclosure?

Last August, after the documents gained media attention CRT editor Roger McClellan said the “serious accusations” deserved “careful investigation,” and he and CRT publisher Taylor & Francis would take “appropriate action.”

Shortly thereafter the Center for Biological Diversity and three other national environmental-health organizations sent a letter to CRT and Taylor & Francis detailing the ethical misconduct and formally asking for a retraction. It’s been more than a year since this investigation was begun and, despite multiple follow-up requests by the organizations, no action has been taken.

With Taylor & Francis’s own policy being to issue a retraction for misconduct “when there has been an infringement of publishing ethics,” the case for retraction couldn’t be more clear.

Monsanto’s fingerprints are all over this “independent” review, as laid out in Monsanto’s own internal documents.

Taylor & Francis must determine the standards to which it is willing to hold scientists who publish in its journals – if not for the reputation of the journals themselves, then for the sake of scientific integrity itself and the public’s right to the truth.