Editors of Croatian Medical Journal Resign Amid Long-Running Feud

5 July 2011 3:53 pm

Courtesy of Ana Marušić

Throwing in the towel. Matko and Ana Marušić have had a series of conflicts with CMJ's management board.

A decade-long fight around Croatia's premier scientific journal, which has garnered international respect for its quality standards, has flared up again. Last week, the two editors-in-chief of the Croatian Medical Journal (CMJ) resigned after what they say are years of obstruction by members of the management board that made running the journal virtually impossible. A proposed change in the journal's management structure might have cost them their jobs anyway.

CMJ , which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, has a respectable impact factor of 1.45, the highest of any Croatian journal. At an editorial board meeting on 28 June, Editor-in-Chief Ana Marušić presented her vision for the future: a more specialized journal focused on population genetics and translational medicine, fields in which the journal has had the most citations. But instead of cheering the editorial team on to new victories, Marušić resigned at the end of her talk. Her co-editor-in-chief, Ivan Damjanov of the University of Kansas School of Medicine in Kansas City, stepped down as well.

Eighteen members of the journal's the 27 members of the journal's editorial board—known as executive editors—followed suit immediately, and several others filed their resignations over the following few days.

CMJ was founded in 1991 by Ana Marušić's husband, Matko Marušić, as a forum for doctors to communicate with the outside world during the Balkans' civil war. The couple ran the journal as co-editors-in-chief for many years and made a name for themselves by campaigning for scientific ethics and against corruption and plagiarism. Ana Marušić also chaired international organizations such as the Council of Science Editors and the World Association of Medical Editors.

But they have had many run-ins with the owners of the journal, the medical faculties of Croatia's four biggest universities, based in Zagreb, Rijeka, Osijek, and Split. Most of the animosity has been between the Marušićs and the medical faculty in Zagreb, which controls half of the journal's eight-member management board. Previous fights included a 2008 accusation of defamation against Matko Marušić for discussing corruption at the University of Zagreb, and charges against his wife of plagiarism in a Croatian anatomy textbook -- a mistake she has claimed was her editor's responsibility.

In 2008, the couple left Zagreb; Matko Marušić took up the position of dean at the medical school in Split and resigned from his position on the journal to avoid a conflict of interest. He was replaced by Damjanov. "It was really a catastrophic situation; nobody was talking to anybody," says Damjanov. "I came in to cool the waters a little bit."

But the animosity between the team built around the Marušićs and their arch-rivals at the Zagreb medical school didn't subside, the expat acknowledges. "The basic conflict between the management and editorial boards was never solved," says Damjanov. In 2009, for instance, CMJ's management board claimed that Ana Marušić had never been elected to her editorial position, and it started a process to replace her—until, at the last minute, the official election notes were dug out.

Damjanov says the Zagreb members of the management board resorted to obstruction of the journal's work, for instance by delaying the release of funds to send editors to conferences and holding up the renewal of membership in databases such as CrossCheck. Things got so bad, says Matko Marušić, that his wife received an official letter from the school of medicine detailing the appropriate route for her to take across the university campus to the journal's office.

What triggered the resignation, however, was an impending change in the journal's governance structure that might have cost the duo their jobs, says Matko Marušić. So far, editors-in-chief were elected by the editorial board. But the management board had plans to start electing the editors itself, he says, a reform that, given the Zagreb members' power on the board, was likely to have passed, he says. "We were not afraid but we didn't want to be replaced in such an ugly way," says Matko Marušić, adding that he is speaking on behalf of the editorial team. "We left on our own accord at the peak of success."

Miloš Judaš, a neuroscientist at Zagreb medical school and a member of CMJ's management board, denies interfering with the editors' work, and says that the proposed changes would not necessarily mean the ouster of the current team. Judaš says it would be the medical schools that would supervise the election of the editor-in-chief, not the management board; the job would be an advertised position and the editor-in-chief would elect his or her own editorial board. "There would be no reason why the current editors couldn't reapply through this proposed new process as well," he says.

Duje Bonacci, a spokesperson for the Croatian Ministry of Science, Education and Sports, which provides most of CMJ's budget, says the ministry will not get involved in the fight because the journal has full editorial independence.

The resignations will take effect in September, which will leave the new editorial team with enough material for two more issues. Damjanov says many of the editorial board members could return once the dust has settled. But Ana Marušić thinks that many will move on. She herself has joined forces with Harry Campbell, a professor of genetic epidemiology and public health at the University of Edinburgh, to create The Journal of Global Health, which will be launched at the World Congress of Epidemiology in August.

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