Harvard Health Policy Review Stirs Controversy

Harvard professor cuts ties with student-run publication

A controversial article published in the undergraduate-run Harvard Health and Policy Review has prompted a Harvard professor to resign from the review's board of advisors because the article contained attacks against him and the professional peer-reviewed journal that he edits, according to the professor and three of the review's editors.

The controversy began when the HHPR, which bills itself as a forum for original academic research, published an article by Donald C. Light, a professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. In the article, Light accused the editors of the Journal of Health Economic—three of whom are Harvard professors—of unethically censoring an article he wrote that was critical of the pharmaceutical industry.

Light’s article, despite its personal nature and explosive claims, was reviewed in only a cursory manner, according to the HHPR editors, who were granted anonymity because they were engaged in efforts to resolve the controversy.

As a result, the piece was printed with few changes, and the Harvard professors who were personally named in the article—Thomas McGuire, Joseph P. Newhouse, and Richard Frank—were not alerted about the impending publication or given a chance to reply.

Both Newhouse and Frank are on the HHPR’s board of advisers. Frank said in an interview yesterday that he resigned from his HHPR position last week, and Newhouse said that he is still “thinking over” what he wants to do.

Frank said that the conflict which arose from his positions as both an editor of the JHE and a HHPR faculty advisor was the primary reason he decided to cut ties with the student-run publication.

“[The HHPR editors] are free to publish whatever they publish,” Frank said. “I thought the best thing to do was to just allow them to do what they’re going to do, but be separate from the whole activity.”

Though Frank is listed as one of the student group’s faculty advisors, he said that he does not recall HHPR editors ever consulting him on anything. In fact, Frank said that the only contact he remembers having with the HHPR was his e-mail notifying the editors of his resignation.

Likewise, Newhouse, who has been on the publication’s board of advisors since its inception roughly eight years ago, said that he has never been actively involved with the publication process.

The brouhaha resulting from the publication of Light’s article raises two issues concerning the student group’s publication practices.

Frank said he believed that HHPR editors did not follow proper fact-checking procedures, adding that it is a generally accepted practice to give the subject of any personal attacks a chance to respond.

“I thought that they had sort of violated my personal sense of fair play and editing,” Frank said.

Kevin T. Huang ’09, the HHPR’s editor-in-chief, posted a statement to the journal’s Web site yesterday, calling the mishandled publication of this article a “clear, unprofessional mistake.”

One HHPR editor described the event as a “breakdown in our normal process, or at least what should be our normal process.”

HHPR editors pulled down their Web site earlier this week in order to restrict access to Light’s article, reasoning that removing the content from just one issue would suggest that they had removed Light’s article as a result of pressure from the JHE editors.

Even before the issue with Light’s article and the ensuring controversy, the HHPR editorial staff had already decided to shift their journal away from publishing primary research. The concern, the HHPR editors said, was that the review is not equipped to put submitted articles through a peer review process, the standard for academic journals that print primary research.

The editors said they did not know when the plans to move away from primary research would go into effect, though they said that the new controversy might cause the change to take place sooner than anticipated.

“I think we realized even before this that we’d be better off emulating ‘Scientific American’ than emulating ‘Science,’” one of the editors said. “The shift wasn’t prompted by the health economics controversy, but it does show why the change is a good idea.”

—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at pbhayani@fas.harvard.edu.
—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at junewu@fas.harvard.edu.