Astroturf journals

by Henry Farrell on May 4, 2009

Elsevier already has an awesomely wonderful reputation as an academic publisher, but even by their standards, “this”: (free reg. required) is pretty extraordinary.

Merck paid an undisclosed sum to Elsevier to produce several volumes of a publication that had the look of a peer-reviewed medical journal, but contained only reprinted or summarized articles–most of which presented data favorable to Merck products–that appeared to act solely as marketing tools with no disclosure of company sponsorship.

…The _Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine,_ which was published by Exerpta [HF-sic] Medica, a division of scientific publishing juggernaut Elsevier, is not indexed in the MEDLINE database, and has no website (not even a defunct one).

… In testimony provided at the trial last week, which was obtained by The Scientist, George Jelinek, an Australian physician and long-time member of the World Association of Medical Editors, reviewed four issues of the journal that were published from 2003-2004. An “average reader” (presumably a doctor) could easily mistake the publication for a “genuine” peer reviewed medical journal, he said in his testimony. “Only close inspection of the journals, along with knowledge of medical journals and publishing conventions, enabled me to determine that the Journal was not, in fact, a peer reviewed medical journal, but instead a marketing publication for MSD[A].”

He also stated that four of the 21 articles featured in the first issue he reviewed referred to Fosamax. In the second issue, nine of the 29 articles related to Vioxx, and another 12 to Fosamax. All of these articles presented positive conclusions regarding the MSDA drugs. “I can understand why a pharmaceutical company would collect a number of research papers with results favourable to their products and make these available to doctors,” Jelinek said at the trial. “This is straightforward marketing.”

… Lurie, in examining two of the issues for _The Scientist,_ agreed that one particularly strange element of the _Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine_ is that it contains “review” articles that cite just one or two references. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” he said. “Reviews are usually swimming in references.”

Elsevier acknowledged that Merck had sponsored the publication, but did not disclose the amount the drug company paid. In a statement emailed to The Scientist, Elsevier said that the company “does not today consider a compilation of reprinted articles a ‘Journal’.”

“Elsevier acknowledges the concern that the journals in question didn’t have the appropriate disclosures,” the statement continued. “It is worth noting that project in question was produced 6 years ago and disclosure protocols have evolved since 2003. Elsevier’s current disclosure policies meet the rigor and requirements of the current publishing environment.”

“Via Summer Johnson”:



Charlie Murtaugh 05.04.09 at 4:14 am

Wow. Just wow.


The Raven 05.04.09 at 4:33 am

Wow, let’s show those pirates on the internet how to do it. Krawk!


John Quiggin 05.04.09 at 6:42 am

Wow was my reaction too. I’m going to have to reconsider whether publishing with Elsevier can be justified.


The Raven 05.04.09 at 8:14 am

John, seriously, hasn’t it been questionable for years?


John Quiggin 05.04.09 at 8:16 am

It has been questionable for years, but I’ve managed to convince myself that it was OK.

With the latest, I have to reconsider.


Utisz 05.04.09 at 9:16 am

Climate-change deniers will be kicking themselves for not having thought of this scam.


Lord Chesterfield 05.04.09 at 9:38 am

“If you should happen to have an Elzevir classic in your pocket, neither show it nor mention it.”

Yes, for years.


Maurice Meilleur 05.04.09 at 11:02 am

@6: Not to mention Objectivists. Can you imagine? The Ayn Rand Institute starts a ‘literary journal’ called The Fountain, in the first issue of which one half of the articles are reconsiderations of the literary merit, philosophical depth, and contemporary relevance of the themes in Anthem.


Maurice Meilleur 05.04.09 at 11:05 am

Huh. And given that Elsevier charges up to $22K/year for annual subscriptions to some of its journals, ARI might even get them on board.


John Quiggin 05.04.09 at 11:15 am

“Climate-change deniers will be kicking themselves for not having thought of this scam”


Bill Gardner 05.04.09 at 11:16 am

My impression is that these were not unique events, and that Elsevier has not been the only guilty party. Be aware that it was once a common practice for pharmaceutical companies to sponsor symposia on their drugs at meetings. For which their PR people would write text and prepare slides for the ‘academic’ speakers. The ‘papers’ from these events would later be published in a journal.


Bill Gardner 05.04.09 at 11:17 am

Sorry, I meant to say ‘journal’.


MattF 05.04.09 at 11:51 am

Elsevier managed to combine the roles of pimp, whore, and piano player on the ground floor who doesn’t know what’s going on upstairs. I’m impressed.


John Protevi 05.04.09 at 12:13 pm

disclosure protocols have evolved since 2003. Elsevier’s current disclosure policies meet the rigor and requirements of the current publishing environment.

Let’s see: requirements for Darwinian evolution by natural selection: 1. blind variation; 2. heritability; 3. selection.

We’ve got selection via detection, criticism and shaming. We’ve got heritability as the next generation of journals has lost the offending trait. The problem is that the variation was directed rather than blind. Conclusion: Elsevier are Lamarckians! Their next step then is to 1. hide their PR a little better or 2. swamp the field with so much crap that the critics are too busy with other outrages and don’t see the next attempt. Looks like an evolutionary arms race to me!


Ginger Yellow 05.04.09 at 12:58 pm

I love the claim that this might have been considered ethical in 2003. Yes, it was a wild and dangerous world six years ago.


Barry 05.04.09 at 2:14 pm

“It is worth noting that project in question was produced 6 years ago and disclosure protocols have evolved since 2003. ”

Yeah, right, because in 2003 it was considered totally ethical to set up a fraudulent journal and then cherry pick papers.

This, to me, is criminal fraud.


fardels bear 05.04.09 at 2:15 pm

The scientific racists have been playing this game since 1960 with the MANKIND QUARTERLY.


The Raven 05.04.09 at 4:22 pm

“Climate-change deniers will be kicking themselves for not having thought of this scam.”

They have. They try. They just don’t have Merck’s resources.



eudoxis 05.04.09 at 4:24 pm

First JAMA and now from the publishers of The Lancet. Can we trust anyone anymore?


The Raven 05.04.09 at 4:38 pm

“So always question what you’re told/And ask, ‘who does it serve?’/And if that someone isn’t you/Give ’em what they deserve!”–Leslie Fish

Anarchist Fish’s idea of “what they deserve” involved rifles. Generally, the Raven prefers less pointed criticism of the living.



Bill Gardner 05.04.09 at 4:49 pm

The Raven @ 18:

Climate-change deniers … just don’t have Merck’s resources.

Are you sure? Value of Merck = $26/share * 2.1B shares = $54.6B.
Value of Exxon Mobil = $68.5 *4.9B shares =$335.7B.


The Raven 05.04.09 at 5:45 pm

Bill Gardner: you’re right, I’m wrong. I suppose climate change deniers are focusing on persuading different groups, and fake scientific literature doesn’t cut much with the general public or US legislators.


byzantine 05.04.09 at 8:26 pm

The symposia that Bill Gardner mentions were, I believe, usually if not always published as journal supplements. The ones I was familiar with always prominently disclosed drug company sponsorship, and physicians I think generally realized that for that reason the material in the supplements was not to be regarded as having the same validity as material in the regular issues of the journal. I worked for a time editing articles for journal supplements; I was paid by the publisher of the journal, and they backed me up when I insisted that the nominal authors of the articles (the drug company in fact paid their own employees or a PR firm to ghostwrite the articles) include additional information about adverse effects and additional references. I did get the impression that I was unusual in advocating such changes, though.

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