Almost the entire editorial board of one Australia’s most influential medical journal intend to resign, with several editors also handing in their notices, after contentious plans to outsource production led to the abrupt dismissal of the editor-in-chief.

Staff at the 101-year-old Medical Journal of Australia were on Wednesday informed by journal owner AMPCo that the journal’s production would be outsourced to global academic publishing house Elsevier. Editor-in-chief Stephen Leeder was sacked on the same day. Today, the journal’s deputy editor Dr Tania Janusic resigned, while medical editor (and editor of MJA Insight) Ruth Armstrong has handed in her notice.

Leeder, an emeritus professor at Sydney University and one of Australia’s leading public health experts, had indicated his opposition to the outsourcing plans, and was told on Wednesday that AMPCo’s board needed someone who agreed with the strategy. He was unceremoniously led off the premises by HR staff after being handed a letter of termination. He’s not the only one to lose his job, with several of those Crikey spoke to estimating around a dozen MJA staff would be made redundant as a result of plans to outsource the journal’s production to Elsevier.

Members of Australia’s medical community are reeling from the upheaval. Professor Paul Zimmet, one of Australia’s leading experts on diabetes, and Professor Gary Wittert, a member of MJA’s editorial board, have sent a letter to the Australian Medical Association president Brian Owler calling for an inquiry into how the outsourcing came to be awarded to Elsevier. It reads:

“We find it disturbing that AMPCo has taken this action despite the record of Elsevier. We call on the AMA to investigate the circumstances of this arrangement struck between AMPCo and Elsevier and its implications for ethical publishing in our national medical journal.”

AMPCo is a fully owned subsidiary of the AMA. The MJA is funded primarily through AMA membership fees with a portion of its revenues coming from advertising, and it is Australia’s most widely read medical journal. It’s distributed for free to all AMA members and is also widely subscribed to among policy makers and researchers.

As well as being on MJA’s editorial board, Wittert is also the editor of a journal published by Elsevier. He nonetheless told Crikey he was appalled by the manner of the change.

“This is an essentially iconic Australian journal which is part of the AMA, and the AMA membership which is Australian medical practitioners. This move was done without adequate consultation, in a heavy-handed manner, and in the course of a discussion and disagreement about the way forward which the editor should have had a substantial say in, and they sacked him,” he said. “They’ve underestimated the depth of feeling around this. The journal belongs to AMA members.”

He was particularly unhappy about the treatment of Leeder, who is the second editor to be sacked by the board in recent years, following the abrupt dismissal of former editor-in-chief Dr Annette Katelaris after just 18 months in the role in 2012. “[Leeder] is an absolutely outstanding individual, a giant in public health, and a man of extraordinary integrity who’s steered MJA forward off the back of the last crisis they had,” Wittert said.

Crikey has been told that staff who remain at the MJA have been warned against speaking to the media. But Leeder, who is no longer employed by the company, told Crikey he’d been subjected to “insult upon insult” by AMPCo. “At every point, my professional experience was ignored, and it seems to me that they were ideologically committed to outsourcing the production of the journal,” he said.

Leeder says he has two main objections to the outsourcing. The first relates to the impact on the journal of a far smaller editorial staff. “There was an assumption that [those involved in production] are just cogs in a machine. That’s not true. They’re not bit players on side. They’re crucial members of the team. No other medical journal in the western world outsources production, and for good reason. You cut the staff in half, you cut the creativity in half.”

His second set of objections related specifically to Elsevier. “It has a terrible reputation. If you’re going to go with anyone, why them?” he said.

Zimmet says he’s long had issues with Elsevier. “They don’t have a good track record,” he said. In 1998, Elsevier publication The Lancet accepted an article that claimed vaccines could cause autism. The article was widely panned by medical professionals and led to the rise of an anti-vaccine movement in Western countries. The Lancet eventually retracted the article, but it took 12 years to do so. “The article had a huge impact. And they haven’t talked about that at all. Kids have died,” Zimmet said.

In the past Elsevier has been criticised for publishing what looked like medical journals but were actually publications without peer review that were funded by drug companies — many of these titles were based in Australia. More recently, The Lancet has been accused of one-sided publication on the Israel-Palestine issue.

Much of the MJA‘s published research can be viewed for free online. Elsevier is one of the world’s most profitable publishing houses, partly through the high fees it requires for access to research. Zimmet fears the open nature of research published through the MJA is in danger from such an outsourcing.

University of Sydney associate professor Ian Kerridge — who heads up the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine — says the outsourcing couldn’t have come at a worse time. “There’s been an explosion of concerns about publication practices in science and medicine worldwide. A series of major publishing houses, including Elsevier and Sage, have been caught up in scams with false reviewers, false journals, purchased journals, and poor review practices. It’s a hilariously bad time for AMPCo to be doing this. It’s the fastest way to lose scientific and moral integrity. It’s catastrophic.”

Through a spokesperson, AMPCo told Crikey this morning its board was satisfied about Elsevier’s capacity as a publisher. “It was after considerable due diligence that the Board resolved to outsource sub-editing, production and some administration functions of the MJA to Elsevier to ensure the continued success of the journal.  Any queries that were put to the Board about Elsevier were completely and comprehensively addressed to the full satisfaction of the Board.”

The spokesperson disagreed with Crikey’s characterisation of the decision as having been dropped on staff, saying: “Professor Leeder and the editorial team were consulted quite extensively, and due processes around this project have been followed at all times.”