IN MATTERS scientific, the New England Journal of Medicine has not just reputation but mystique. Like its counterpart, the Journal of the American Medical Association, it offers signposts -- assurances of quality and unbiased scientific rigor -- in an increasingly chaotic medical and scientific landscape. Those factors help explain the consternation that has greeted the forced resignation of the New England journal's longtime editor, Dr. Jerome Kassirer. He is said to have been forced out over disagreements with the publisher, the Massachusetts Medical Society, that amount to how best to make use of the journal's prestige.
Dr. Kassirer objected to the society's plans to publish a series of "spinoff journals" on subspecialties -- the New England Journal of Cardiology, the New England Journal of Microsurgery -- under the parent journal's distinctive name and logo. The spinoffs might print studies that had been rejected by the main journal, whose rigorous selection process is legendary. The medical society, analysts said, is looking ahead to a time when print journals won't be a reliable revenue source; it seeks to capitalize on the journal's reputation in offering new products. Dr. Kassirer, and the many who responded angrily to his departure or offered their resignations, see that reputation as being diluted if the term "From the Publishers of the New England Journal of Medicine" is spread beyond the product that gives it its luster.
Brand names are widely used to sell commercial products. The question is whether the same practice should be used in medicine or science. A decade ago the American Heart Association offered an AHA logo for "heart healthy" foods that paid application fees; in 1997 the American Medical Association likewise floated plans to endorse Sunbeam Corp. products. Both plans collapsed after public outcry. This one's a little different, but scientific integrity is, almost by definition, hard to market.