A physician and researcher recently kicked out of one of the world’s most authoritative medical research bodies repeatedly misused official letterhead to espouse personal views, the co-chair of the organization’s governing board told STAT and Retraction Watch.
The governing board of The Cochrane Collaboration, which reviews the scientific literature in areas of clinical research and produces widely cited analyses that help guide medical practice, voted to expel Peter Gøtzsche earlier this month. Gøtzsche was the director of the Nordic Cochrane Center, in Copenhagen, Denmark, and has been critical of how the Cochrane has handled certain subjects. Gøtzsche has been particularly outspoken about a review of the safety of a vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV), a cause of cervical cancer, and of psychiatry in general.
The governing board — of which Gøtzsche had been a member since early 2017 — voted earlier this week to confirm his termination as a member of the Cochrane Collaboration. Four of the board’s members had resigned following the original vote.
According to Cochrane governing board co-chair Marguerite Koster, over the years Gøtzsche was “criticizing staff, saying that his research was being denigrated by the Cochrane editors, that they were seeking to protect psychiatry’s guild interest and protect the drug industry. This attacks the heart of what Cochrane’s mission is, and its values as an organization.”
Gøtzsche was “baselessly undermining Cochrane’s credibility and independence,” Koster said Thursday. At one point, he apologized, she said, which the board felt was a good sign.
But earlier this year, a physician expressed concerns that Gøtzsche was using Cochrane letterhead in correspondence that didn’t reflect Cochrane views. “That was very disturbing to the organization, Koster said. And Cochrane also learned that Gøtzsche had used Cochrane Nordic letterhead while giving evidence in a homicide trial.
“It was signed by him, in his capacity as director of Cochrane Nordic, and written on Cochrane Nordic letterhead,” Koster said. “Cochrane really isn’t active in the area of individual forensic psychiatry. It was used to espouse personal views.”
This all happened, Koster said, long after Gøtzsche had been asked to include a disclaimer on any correspondence saying that these were his personal views. “If there’s a question about using letterhead, we ask members to speak to the communications office and ask, ‘Is this OK?’” Koster said.
Some of the cases of “bad behavior” the board referred to in its statements dated back to 2003 and were similar, Koster said. “He doesn’t need to use Cochrane letterhead to espouse his views,” she said. “He’s quite well-known.”
The board continued to be concerned about Gøtzsche’s behavior since its initial vote on Sept. 13. In posts on his website, he breached confidentiality and violated his responsibilities as a member of the board, Koster said.
The decision was not, as some have suggested, based on Gøtzsche’s criticism of a recent Cochrane review of a vaccine for HPV, Koster said. There have been no complaints about Cochrane member Tom Jefferson, who co-authored the critique, Koster said, and certainly no action involving him.
Gøtzsche did not directly respond when asked about the letterhead allegations. He told STAT and Retraction Watch Friday that he has “been exposed to one of the worst show trials in modern history in the Western world” and claimed that attorneys hired by Cochrane to perform an independent investigation had exonerated him. (He made that confidential report of their findings available on his own site.) He called the governing board’s Sept. 26 statement “so misleading and partly mendacious that I cannot see the difference to a drug company.”
The Cochrane board concluded that the lawyers’ report did not exonerate Gøtzsche.
“The Cochrane Governing Board and I agree on one thing: I no longer belong to Cochrane,” he wrote by email. “I do not wish to be a member of an organisation that has become so morally corrupt at its top that – instead of providing a good example for others to follow – distorts the evidence, lies about it, and suppresses it if it is inconvenient.”
Despite Jefferson’s call for the remaining directors of the governing board to resign, Cochrane, which has about 12,000 members around the world, is not going through a governance crisis, Koster said. “The vast majority of responses I’ve received have been very thankful that actions are being taken, and that this kind of behavior should not be permitted,” she said.
The board plans to hold a vote by the end of the year to fill its empty seats.
This story is a collaboration between STAT and Retraction Watch.