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Cancer, Chemicals and History | The Nation

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Cancer, Chemicals and History

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Scranton in his forty-one-page statement for the chemical companies charges that Markowitz violated "basic principles of academic integrity, historical accuracy, and professional responsibility" and engaged in "sustained and repeated violations" of the official "Standards" of the American Historical Association. Scranton's argument: Markowitz knew the names of the people reviewing his manuscript for the publisher and had suggested names of possible manuscript reviewers to the publisher. "Such practices," Scranton writes, "subverted confidential, objective refereeing of scholarly manuscripts."

About the Author

Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey...

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But it's a common practice of university presses to ask authors to suggest reviewers, often because authors know better than editors who the most knowledgeable experts are, especially on an obscure topic like vinyl chloride. There's nothing unethical about this practice and nothing in the AHA standards about it. It is true, as Scranton suggests, that university presses typically offer manuscript reviewers the option of keeping their report confidential from the authors, and that in this case the publisher revealed the identities of the reviewers to the authors. But that was part of a review process that was much more demanding than the typical case. Instead of the usual two or three manuscript reviewers, Rosner and Markowitz's manuscript had eight outside reviewers, including the former head of the National Cancer Institute and the former chair of the Centers for Disease Control's Lead Advisory Panel. And instead of simply forwarding the written evaluations to the authors, as is the usual practice, Milbank Memorial Fund, the public health nonprofit that co-published the book with the University of California Press, sponsored a two-day conference that brought together the reviewers, the authors and their editors to go over the manuscript chapter by chapter. To describe this rigorous scholarly process as "unethical" because it revealed the identities of the reviewers to the authors is absurd.

Scranton also objects to what he calls "overgeneralization" in Deceit and Denial. For example, the authors use the term "industry." But, Scranton argues, there were only individual companies. Rosner and Markowitz in their response show that the companies formed a trade organization that claimed to speak for "the industry." And Scranton accuses Markowitz of ethical violations for incomplete and selective quotation and one-sided advocacy. However, Scranton violates precisely what he says are the ethical principles he is defending; Scranton's essay is much more incomplete and selective, and is completely one-sided in its defense of the chemical industry.

Could Scranton be right that Markowitz violated the AHA Statement on Standards in his research? I asked the vice president for research of the AHA, Roy Rosenzweig, Distinguished Professor of History at George Mason University. "I've read the AHA Statement on Standards," he says. "I see nothing in Markowitz and Rosner's book that's a violation of the AHA Standards. In my opinion, the book represents the highest standards of the history profession. Scranton should be embarrassed to make the claim that there's an ethical violation here--as opposed to the claim that he disagrees with their interpretation."

The rest of Scranton's argument has a lot in common with the arguments made by the tobacco and lead companies and their attorneys in those historic liability lawsuits, arguments that have been identified by Stanford historian Robert Proctor, writing in The Lancet, one of the leading medical journals in the world. The generic arguments go something like this: Although historians have found evidence that industries were aware of the danger posed by their products, that evidence was not definitive; because they had "no proof," they had no obligation to act to protect the health of workers or the public; standards of corporate morality and openness have become stronger only recently, so it's "unfair" to apply today's standards to past conduct; and of course there's always the argument that the historians who claim to have found evidence of corporate misconduct are "biased."

When I asked Scranton by e-mail if he would be willing to talk about his deposition, he replied, "These are matters for a court to address and are not yet issues for public debate." Of course, nothing is more public than a court case--but he told the Newark Star-Ledger he "regretted" that Rosner and Markowitz were making the issue public. Columbia historian Elizabeth Blackmar, one of the manuscript reviewers who were subpoenaed by the chemical companies, said, "I respect Scranton's work as a historian, so I was sorry he had turned himself into a hired gun this way."

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