Right-Wing Brain Surgeons: The Case of Surgical Neurology International

By Neuroskeptic | February 22, 2015 7:35 am

Last week we learned about the strange goings-on at two journals edited by the autism researcher, Johnny Matson. Matson and his team ‘stepped down’ after accusations of improper peer review processes.

This reminded me of another case of unusual behavior at an academic journal: Surgical Neurology International (SNI), published by Medknow/Wolters Kluwer. I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while, and now seems like a good time.

The story of SNI is rather more complex than the Matson case. The first unusual thing about SNI is the history of the journal. SNI first appeared in April 2010, but it wasn’t a new creation. SNI arose out of the wreckage of Surgical Neurology (SN), published by Elsevier from 1981 to 2009. Its last editor was James I. Ausman, who’s now the editor of SNI.

In 2009, Elsevier removed the entire editorial board of Surgical Neurology, replacing them with a completely new leadership team and renaming the journal to World Neurosurgery (WN). WN is the official successor of Surgical Neurology, but almost the entire ex-editorial board of SN are now found working for SNI.

This academic “coup” leading to the “schism” of a scientific journal is pretty remarkable. What makes it even stranger is that no-one seems to know why it happened. The new leadership of WN have never explained what occurred. In an article in WN, Peter Black, one of the architects of the new journal, says only that in 2008, the publisher “wished to implement editorial and administrative changes to an existing neurosurgical title”. Black doesn’t even name SN, although this is clearly a reference to them! Was what happened so traumatic that SN has become “the journal that must not be named”?

More evidence that the events of 2009 did not go smoothly comes from the new editor, Michael Apuzzo, who recently referred to the new journal being plagued by “a small group of internal negative factions”, “nefarious forces” who need to be “rooted out, and removed from influence in the future.” In other editorials Apuzzo has decried “political interference” by enemies of WN inside the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies (WFNS). He names no names, but a number of SN editors were active in the WFNS. This is as close to Shakespearean intrigue as academic publishing gets.

ausman_apuzzoOn the other side of the fence, no-one involved in SNI seems to have ever written about the coup or why it happened, either.

So what did happen? Well, this is speculation, but I suspect that the end of SN may have been related in some way to the increasingly political nature of the publication under Ausman. Put simply, Ausman was using SN to publish conservative opinion pieces that had little, if anything, to do with brain surgery.

Take for example the articles published in SN by Cuban exile neurosurgeon and political columnist Miguel A. Faria. In the last years of SN, Faria’s articles included “Socialized (free) medical care in Cuba part I: a poor state of health!” and “Is there a natural right to medical care?” (no). Ausman’s own editorials were often political too, such as in “Snapshot of the World 9/2007” which covers Islam, terrorism, and the evils of socialism (i.e. free healthcare), and one from 2009 in which Ausman reflected on the election of Obama:

[Obama]’s beliefs were socialistic, as was his background… In my 50 years as a voter in the United States, I have never seen such disregard of the public by its elected officials… The Democrat Party wants a system in which the decisions are made by an elite few on the basis that the issues are too complicated for the people to understand.

That said, the great majority of papers in SN were not like this. Most of them were normal research papers. By accounts, SN was a successful journal, one of the big names in the field.

After SN became SNI, the politicization of the journal has progressed further (although most papers are still normal science). Faria’s editorials, for instance, have become straightforwardly ideological. Many of them no longer have even the slightest connection to medicine. After the Sandy Hook shootings, for instance, Faria defended gun rights in the pages of SNI. Other Faria articles in the journal include “America, guns, and freedom” and an article on the Russian elections of 2012.

If SNI is politicized, many of the editors of the journal are even less restrained outside its pages. Faria, for instance, runs Hacienda Publishing, devoted to conservative opinion on history, medicine and politics. Hacienda counts several SNI editors among its contributors, including Ausman. Much of Hacienda’s material can only be described as fringe, such as this article arguing that “80 percent of the activities of the [US Federal Government] violate the Constitution.”

Much of Hacienda’s material consists of republished articles from Medical Sentinel, the official journal of the conservative medical lobby group, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). Faria edited Medical Sentinel until 2003, when it was renamed JPandS. JPandS claims to be “peer reviewed”, but it is not indexed in PubMed. JPandS has published papers defending fringe theories such as that HIV does not cause AIDS, that global warming is a myth, and that vaccines cause autism.

Another SNI associate editor-in-chief (and regular Hacienda contributor) is Russell Blaylock, who makes Faria look moderate. Blaylock believes that vaccines are a collectivist conspiracy that cause brain damage. There’s a distinct religious angle to Blaylock’s work. In SNI, Blaylock published an essay which concluded that:

The collectivists not only seek to destroy Judeo-Christian beliefs but also are aggressively altering the church from inside so that it too becomes a voice of egalitarian collectivism, that is, the new world order […] in being blinded to the real truth, we are building the gallows of our own civilization.

Is this kind of material really appropriate for a journal of neurosurgery?

Incidentally, Surgical Neurology wasn’t always politicized. Ausman’s predecessor as editor of SN was Eben Alexander Jr. His son, Eben Alexander III, is the neurosurgeon who notoriously claims to have seen Heaven during a near-death experience. He’s the man behind that notorious Newsweek cover:

newsweek-cover

But under Alexander Jr., Surgical Neurology was quite apolitical. Likewise, SN was strictly about science during the reign of founding editor Paul Bucy, a great researcher famous throughout neuroscience for helping to discover Klüver–Bucy syndrome.

This post is an expansion of a comment I left on Jeffrey Beall’s Scholarly Open Access blog.

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  • Neuroconservative

    I wonder if you feel the same way about the politicization of The Lancet?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      I do actually, but with the caveat that the Lancet is a general medical journal not a specialist one, and as such its proper domain encompasses more than a neurosurgery journal does.

      Some of the articles in SN(I) might have been acceptable in a generalist journal like the Lancet, e.g. the ones about the Cuban healthcare system.

      But there are many topics which have no place in the pages of any medical journal.

      • The Neuro Times

        Historically “The Lancet” had a reputation as a muckraking political organ; its founding editor, Thomas Wakley, was infamous in some quarters for his political opinions and calls for reform. I think there is a significant difference between the activities you are describing in SN and those of “The Lancet”. It would be hard to describe much that “The Lancet” entertains as falling outside its traditional remit.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

          That’s true.

      • Blood__Raven

        Do you think this is simply author/editor bias or deliberate entryism? I notice in sex research, left wing statements such as ‘pernicious sexism’ are littered in the text as though they were truths instead of personal assumptions.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

          That’s a seperate issue, though. Those concepts you describe may or may not be valid, but at least they are relevant to the topic (sex).

  • Woodster_99

    The politicization of science journals is very damaging. Interestingly, the new editor, Michael Apuzzo, is a controversial figure himself. He served as a consultant to the NFL’s committees on head injuries/concussion during the period when Apuzzo was editor in chief of Neurosurgery. Many of the early papers from the NFL’s research group, which were heavily criticized for generally finding that concussions were very rare and not a problem, were published in Neurosurgery (see Fainaru-Wada & Fainuru’s book “League of Denial”).

  • Duncan Bayne

    Socialised healthcare isn’t free; it’s taxpayer-funded (or taxpayer-subsidised).

    The matter of socialised vs. market provision of healthcare seems like a reasonable editorial topic for a medical journal, too (unlike many of the other topics you mention, which sound entirely unrelated).

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  • Mike Richardson

    It’s always fascinated me how you reconcile the Hippocratic Oath with a political philosophy that denies healthcare is a basic human right. In Louisiana, we’ve just elected a new conservative senator who is a doctor, but apparently has no problem taking money from the oil and gas industry which has done tremendous damage to the environment and the health of people in our state (in fairness, both parties do this in this state, though the industry decided that Mary Landrieu was not sufficiently pro-oil). Seems like the Hippocratic Oath has been traded for the Hypocrite Oath for some of these M.D.s.

    • Blood__Raven

      How do you reconcile it with practising abortion or euthanasia? They don’t even bother.

      • Andrew Kiener

        Abortion doesn’t harm a living person, and euthanasia ends otherwise unavoidable suffering. Difficult decisions, maybe, but please don’t pretend one has to callously ignore ethics in order to reach a conclusion different from that which you appear to have come to.

        • http://www.conradseitz.wordpress.com/ conradseitz

          Unfortunately, the Hippocratic Oath is obsolete, not surprising considering its age. It includes promises not to induce abortion or to perform euthanasia. We all know that both practices can be defended ethically. Nobody who mentions the oath ever seems to have read it. They just assume that it involves ethical practice of medicine and look no further.
          Thus, the Hippocratic Oath does not mention health care as being a basic human right. This is partially because human rights as we know them did not exist 2500 years ago. We now know that human beings have basic rights, and most people would include health care as one of them. Not everyone would agree, but that is why we have comments.

        • Blood__Raven

          What nonsense.
          I didn’t even state an opinion on those subjects.
          Which means you can’t even know what I think.

          The point was the Hippocratic Oath forbids both (or did before people modestly rewrote Hippocrates’ words for him.)

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  • Buddy199

    “the evils of socialism (i.e. free healthcare)”

    It’s free for some only because others get charged extra to subsidize it.

    • feloniousgrammar

      Which is true of insurance, in general.

      • Mike Richardson

        Exactly. Happens anytime you go to the doctor, and you pay extra for the folks without insurance. You’re going to pay one way or another, unless you advocate a system where the uninsured are left to sicken and die, which hopefully isn’t considered a viable option by anyone on this board.

  • John Smith

    Sounds like you are upset that someone doesn’t buy into Obama’s drivel!

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Whether these guys buy into Obama’s drivel is their own business, what I’m upset about is that they’re using an academic journal as their platform for it.

  • http://myindigolives.wordpress.com/ Ellie Kesselman

    Did you see today’s head transplant news via CBS? https://twitter.com/CBSNews/status/571085586964078592
    Guess what journal the research was published in? Yup, that’s right: Surgical Neurology International!
    “Canavero first proposed the concept in 2013, and he has continued to research and develop the technique. He just published a follow-up paper in the journal Surgical Neurology International, which provides details on how he could potentially accomplish this surgery, keeping the patient’s nerves intact.”

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      I know! It’s all pretty crazy.

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  • Vaughan

    A series of articles you would have missed with the linked search to Miguel Faria’s papers in SNI are these where he argues for brain surgery to make “criminal repeat offenders” less violent.

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Neuroskeptic

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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