Slate scrubs article by U of M bioethicist after lawsuit threat

Dr. Carl Elliott, a bioethics professor at the University of Minnesota, has found himself caught in the middle of a fight between a controversial stem-cell company executive and Slate magazine.

Elliott wrote a commentary for Slate called "The Celltex Affair." The subject of the article was Glenn McGee, an executive at a company called Celltex and the one-time editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Bioethics. Elliott argued that McGee's dual appointments were a conflict of interest.

That is, until Slate abruptly scrubbed the piece from its website, writing, "We withdraw the article and apologize to Dr. Glenn McGee." Elliott says his piece came down after McGee threatened Slate with a lawsuit.

"Everything in my article had been reported elsewhere," says Elliott. "Why Glenn McGee picked the Slate piece to fire a threat to, I don't know."

Celltex, a Texas-based company, has been on the bioethics radar for some time now. In an investigation by the science journal Nature, the company was accused of providing adult stem-cell injections to patients in Texas for the purpose of treating conditions like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's. Those kinds of treatments are not yet legal in the U.S.

When McGee announced in December of 2011 that he was taking an executive position at Celltex, bioethicists raised the red flag. While he assured everyone that he would leave the American Journal of Bioethics on March 1, his critics charged him with using both titles during the overlap.

Elliott raised the issue in his piece, which went live on Slate on February 17. 

On February 27, both Elliott and Plotz received a threatening letter from attorneys for McGee charging defamation (read the letter and specific charges of inaccuracy here), and demanding a retraction by the end of business on February 28. Elliott says that the threat of a lawsuit -- not inaccurate reporting -- is the reason his article came down.

"There were a few easily correctable errors in the piece having to do with the address of the journal and an interpretation of the Scientific American articles," says Elliott. "Their concern didn't seem to be how to fix the errors, it was how to we satisfy Glenn McGee and avoid getting sued."

Elliott says he argued for some time with Slate, but ultimately the entire article was replaced with a note from Slate editor David Plotz:

On Feb. 17, 2012, Slate published an article titled "The Celltex Affair: An Ethics Scandal Strikes the World of Bioethics." Because of shortcomings in the editorial process, the article did not meet Slate's standards for verification and fairness and should not have been published. We withdraw the article and apologize to Dr. Glenn McGee.

Almost an hour after Slate yanked the piece and apologized, McGee tweeted that he was resigning at Celltex:

Elliott responded to each of McGee's specific charges, point-by-point. Read his argument here.

Of Slate, Elliott says, "I got the impression that they really didn't know the material that they were editing, to be honest."

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