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Merck, Elsevier, and Fakery

I’ve been meaning to write about the latest advance in salesmanship, pioneered by Merck and Elsevier. As most of you will have heard, the two collaborated to produce something called “The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine”. This appears to have looked like a real journal, complete with the Elsevier logo and a board of review editors, but it apparently featured nothing but articles (complimentary article, needless to say) about Merck products.
Update: It appears that Merck and Elsevier actually set up a whole publishing division, Excerpta Medica, to handle these things. More here and many more details here.
The news broke about a month ago in The Australian, and the story has been rolling downhill ever since, getting larger all the way. Now Elsevier has issued a public apology for their part in the whole affair, as well they should.
As Orac points out, there are a lot of “throwaway” journals out there, particularly in the medical field. These are sort of once-over-lightly review journals, condensing the literature down into short reads. And that’s not all bad, although you wouldn’t want a physician to be getting all his or her news that way. But this latest venture was designed to look like a real journal, and was, in fact, full of real articles which had been reprinted from other Elsevier journals. That’s well over the line.
I’m not sure who to be more mad at here: Merck or Elsevier. This one really looks like a team effort. If Merck wants to assemble a bunch of previously peer-reviewed studies and put them out under some banner to show how wonderful their drugs were, well, that’s fine by me. But that banner shouldn’t be something that’s deliberately designed to look like a peer-reviewed journal itself. And the collection should have a disclaimer on the cover that it’s being paid for by Merck, and the first page of every article should have another box: “As originally reported in (journal citation) – brought to you as a service by Merck”. I wouldn’t have a problem with that at all.
But that (completely above-board) style seems to be just what the company wanted to avoid, and they got Elsevier, a large and (apparently spottily) respectable scientific publisher to say “Yes, indeed!”. Merck’s marketing people should be ashamed of themselves, but they should be ashamed for doing what they’re paid to do too vigorously. Elsevier, on the other hand, shouldn’t be doing this sort of thing at all.

18 comments on “Merck, Elsevier, and Fakery”

  1. Alig says:

    Money talks. I am sure Elsevier got paid a bunch to put out this journal. Is their apology going to include the donation of all that money to charity? If not, it’ll mean nothing.

  2. DrZZ says:

    It’s not the only fake journal Elsevier put out. But all the money goes to science, right?

  3. Big Bob says:

    Well it’s not so much fakery, more an underhand marketing strategy, Elsevier really should have thought it through before risking tarnishing its reputation in this way.
    I’m wondering how likely it would have been that these articles would have turned up in a search and if one of the offending articles were to come up in a search but not the original. For me it’s like doing a search and having an article from New Scientist come up but not the original from Neurology that New Scientist is reporting on, which seems unlikely. In which case this really is nothing more than an expensive method of advertising.
    I also notice that the journal was published between 2002 and 2005…it’s taken a while for this story to surface, is there any significance as to the timing? Conspiracy?
    Oh dear it sounds as though I’m defending Merck, but since they didn’t get back to me after a second round interview 15 years back I owe them nothing, not that I’m bitter about it!

  4. T says:

    Ah, Elsevier – the black sheep of journal publishers.

  5. Muruga says:

    It was unbelievable that two of the reputed companies, which are the icons of their own fields and said to follow strong corporate ethics, join together to indulge in an unacceptable practice. Hope, both Merck and Elsevier have realised the mistake. To err is human!

  6. Sili says:

    Well. Given Reed-Elsevier’s profitable weapons business, noöne’s really too surprised by their ethics.

  7. hell to the chief says:

    The quality of new Elsevier titles has been slowly decreasing over the years, but compared to Bentham, they are still paragons of virtue. Why would anyone need so many titles that contain essentially the same weak (and repetitive) so-called reviews, other than just to rip off libraries in academia and industry.
    I see little need for any new scientific journals unless they address a genuinely new field. If your stuff is good enough, put it in a tried and tested title.

  8. Jose says:

    Looking through the pdf of an issue on the Scientist website, I suspect very few MDs would take it seriously or not see through the charade. That said, using the reputable sounding citation to then cite the “articles” in other sources makes the whole thing exceedingly shady.

  9. bradpalm1 says:

    Merck has fallen from the heights since the Medco merger fiasco years ago. It’s amazing how they keep shooting themselves in the foot with these ill-conceived and compromising relationships. Their roster of medications is getting tired and their marketing arm seems in disarray. Of course, I don’t know any company you can really point to anymore as a paragon of leadership.

  10. Mad says:

    If all the articles were peer reviewed by other journals and just repackaged why are we supposed to be so upset? Are the slipping in other things not reviewed? Are there changes to the text vs the originals?

  11. Anonymous says:

    Not surprised by this at all. Merck is not an ethical company any more.

  12. Bruce Hamilton says:

    I wonder if this “division” is actually just a small add-on group to their Excerpta Medica database ( EMBase ), which used to be the medical equivalent of CAS?.
    If so, they’re giving the whole respected division a very bad name.

  13. p.e. says:

    Would this be a bad time to argue in favor of open-access not-for-profit journals?

  14. bcpmoon says:

    Sometimes I think, the marketing people should be trained in HAZOP-Studies: What can go wrong, what to do then and how to minimize casualties. They seem like children to me, not comprehending the real world when it inevitable calls to dinner.

  15. AR says:

    Worked at a large pharma that was fined a whopping 800 million for ethics violations. Over the next 5 years all company employees were subjected to endless computer ethics modules that sucked up a lot of time. Rumor was that the senior execs just had to log in and out and not actually complete the modules.

  16. TJ says:

    “our Australia office” and “….and we regret that it took place” does not exactly sound like a humble apology from a company taking responsibility for their actions. Another sad day for scientific publishing.

  17. Kate Zeiss says:

    Thought you might find this Merck Frosst PR interesting. It’s from 2007, advertising one-click, all-in-one-place research info for practitioners – claim 400,000 subscribers. Names Excerpta Medica and Elsevior as primary sources

  18. Kate Zeiss says:

    Thought you might find this Merck Frosst PR interesting. It’s from 2007, advertising one-click, all-in-one-place research info for practitioners – claim 400,000 subscribers. Names Excerpta Medica and Elsevior as primary sources
    http://www.merckfrosst.ca/mfcl/en/corporate/newsroom/corporate_news/release_univadis_060607.html

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