In a statement to The Scientist magazine, Elsevier at first said the company “does not today consider a compilation of reprinted articles a ‘journal’”. I would like to expand on this statement: It was a collection of academic journal articles, published by the academic journal publisher Elsevier, in an academic journal-shaped package. Perhaps if it wasn’t an academic journal they could have made this clearer in the title which, I should have mentioned, was named: The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine.
Things have deteriorated since. It turns out that Elsevier put out six such journals, sponsored by industry. The Elsevier chief executive, Michael Hansen, has now admitted that they were made to look like journals, and lacked proper disclosure. “This was an unacceptable practice and we regret that it took place,” he said.
You’ve got to love that ‘mistakes were made’ passive-voice shtick. But the interesting question for me as an academic, is how we should treat Elsevier journals going forth? I really think that the base presumption has to be that if Elsevier was pulling manifestly dishonest stunts like this, it has also been up to lots of borderline unethical activities too. When you see the creation of a complete line of astroturf journals, presumably with the sign-off of senior executives in the company, you aren’t just talking about a couple of bad apples. So what do we do?
Most obviously, we shouldn’t publish in Elsevier journals. This is easy for me to say – I am in a field where Elsevier isn’t especially strong – but I hope that I would say it if I were in a field where Elsevier journals dominated. In general, I would prefer my own work not to be used to add cover and credibility to manifestly bogus and unethical publication strategies. Furthermore, I don’t think we should review for Elsevier journals either. There are obviously a lot of honest scholars who edit journals for Elsevier (one would hope that they are in a majority), but they should really be devoting their efforts elsewhere – and polite but firm negative responses to review requests might help generate the necessary norm shift that would encourage them to move. Finally, I am quite attracted to the idea of registering disapproval when one cites to work that has been published in Elsevier journals. Some boilerplate language along the lines of
Timewaster(2009) finds x to be the case. Although these results were reported in a journal published by Elsevier, the company responsible for deliberately publishing pseudo-journals such as The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that these particular findings are problematic.
might usefully serve to communicate to academics that publishing with Elsevier is a net reputational negative.
Also, and by the way, there is plenty more in Goldacre’s piece about Merck’s response to critics – hitlists of doctors to be ‘neutralized’ or ‘discredited,’ hints of drying up of funds to academic institutions that asked unfortunate questions etc. Discovery can be an awful lot of fun.