The top editor of the New England Journal of Medicine has been forced out in a dispute over the use of the magazine's distinguished name to sell consumer newsletters and other publications.
Dr. Jerome P. Kassirer was asked to step down, friends say, because of his long-standing opposition to the Massachusetts Medical Society's practice of launching new magazines and advertising them as being from "the publishers of the New England Journal of Medicine."
They said Kassirer and other editors oppose tying the journal's reputation to consumer health letters and other magazines that have no real connection to the journal's standards or editing.
The journal, founded in 1812, is regarded by many as the world's most prestigious medical publication. Each week, it is a source of news about the latest breakthroughs in medicine.
The Massachusetts Medical Society, which owns the journal, said it will not renew Kassirer's contract as journal editor, a job he has held for eight years.
"They decided that they were no longer interested in my continuing as the editor-in-chief," Kassirer said Monday. "They told me that they wanted to end my tenure."
Medical society officials said Kassirer's performance as journal editor was never questioned, and both sides said the society never interfered with his decisions about what to print.
"This is an honest difference of opinion," said Frank Fortin, a medical society spokesman. "We are trying to be responsive to a new world of medical publishing."
In January, Dr. George Lundberg was fired from the Journal of the American Medical Association, another of the world's most distinguished medical journals, for publishing a 1991 survey of college students on whether oral sex constitutes sex. The AMA objected to the timing of the publication to coincide with President Clinton's impeachment trial.
Kassirer will give up his job Sept. 1. Several sources said the medical society is negotiating with Dr. Marcia Angell, the journal's executive editor, to fill in for Kassirer while a search committee looks for his replacement.
During his tenure, Kassirer broadened the journal's coverage in many areas, including molecular biology, and put an electronic version on the Internet. The journal's circulation reached about 240,000, with an annual subscription cost of $129.
While the journal is thought to contribute many millions to the medical society's budget each year, the society declines to reveal exactly how much.
Acquaintances said that during his entire tenure, Kassirer resisted the medical society's attempts to use the journal's name and logo to sell its newer publications. These include two consumer newsletters, HealthNews and Heart Watch, as well as Hippocrates, Journal Watch and AIDS Clinical Care, which are written for doctors.
Dr. Robert J. Mayr of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, a part-time journal editor, said Kassirer's contract gave him veto power over any use of the journal's name and logo.
"There are no black-and-white villains and good guys here," Mayer said. "There is just a philosophical difference. The journal views itself as an international treasure, and the Massachusetts Medical Society views it as their most outstanding product."
Kassirer also resisted suggestions that the journal move its offices from the Harvard Medical School library to the society's just-opened headquarters building in suburban Waltham.
Dr. John T. Harrington, dean of Tufts Medical School, resigned from the Medical Society's publications committee two weeks ago to protest the handling of the Kassirer case.
"Control of the journal is slipping to the bean counters," he told the The Boston Globe. "This is a spectacular example of money beating medicine."