Elsevier publishes fake journal for Merck

When it’s not gouging academic libraries with outlandish subscriptional fees, Elsevier finds other ways to boost its bottom line: Publishing bogus journals for pharmaceutical companies. From The Scientist:

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.

“I’ve seen no shortage of creativity emanating from the marketing departments of drug companies,” Peter Lurie, deputy director of the public health research group at the consumer advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen, said, after reviewing two issues of the publication obtained by The Scientist. “But even for someone as jaded as me, this is a new wrinkle.”

The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, which was published by Exerpta Medica, a division of scientific publishing juggernaut Elsevier, is not indexed in the MEDLINE database, and has no website (not even a defunct one). The Scientist obtained two issues of the journal: Volume 2, Issues 1 and 2, both dated 2003. The issues contained little in the way of advertisements apart from ads for Fosamax, a Merck drug for osteoporosis, and Vioxx.

The article contains links to PDFs of the “journal,” which contains one very useful page: the list of members of the editorial board. You never know when you’ll need an Australian clinical researcher whose good name is for sale. (Update: For a more charitable interpretation of the editorial board’s role, see shwu’s comment below. Update #2: And this comment too. )

Elsevier’s defense, described later in the article, is pretty thin. They acknowledge that they failed to include full disclosure of the publications’ commercial mission, but claim that the error was inadvertent. (Given their usual fastidiousness about legal permissions, this can be dismissed as nonsense.) They also point out that the “journal” in question was published several years ago and that they don’t do things like this anymore — also utter crap, since if they were genuinely contrite about the error and had reformed their disclosure policies, they should have gotten in front of it and made an announcement of the fakery before they got caught.

Taking money to publish a fake journal to advance a corporate marketing agenda cheapens the process of peer-reviewed scientific publishing. I don’t imagine that Elsevier is engaging in pay-to-play in their flagship journals, but the fact that they were willing to cast aside their integrity in this once instance casts a shadow over their whole operation.

How many times will Elsevier have to disappoint the scientific community (you remember us, right? we’re the ones who produce their content, peer-review it for free, pay page charges to publish our own work and then pay again for the privilege of accessing those publications) before we get smart and move on? There are other models for scientific publication that are working just fine; we don’t need ethically challenged behemoths like Elsevier to disseminate scientific knowledge. At some point we just have to stop sending them papers.

P.S.: One wonders whether Merck suppressed unfavorable data about their products in their fake journal, as well.

Update: I wrote a follow-up here, and there’s a roundup of blogging about this issue at Tree of Life.

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17 comments

  1. To be fair, I don’t think Elsevier was clear with the EB either. I read remarks from one person who was on the EB and he didn’t know that this “journal” was different from other journals, and that (unsurprisingly) he was never sent anything to review. Granted, he didn’t really question it either. But I would assume that most of the EB would not have agreed to be on it if they’d known what was going on.

  2. Good point, Shirley. I think that’s an important consideration, so much so that I’ve updated the post to reflect your comment.

  3. “At some point we just have to stop sending them papers.” Well, roll on the day we actually have an institutional fund to support OA publishing … but I won’t hold my breath.

  4. @Jake, the numbers don’t support the claim that significantly greater institutional support is required for scientists to publish in open-access journals.

    It’s not as though publishing in Elsevier journals is free. Cell charges $1000 for the first color figure plus $275 for each additional color figure — a quick flip through the last issue suggests that publication charges would be >$2000 for an average article. Several would have been well above $3000.

    PLoS Biology, arguably the most prominent open-access competitor of Cell, charges a flat fee of $2850 for an article. That’s more (on average) than Cell, but not that much more, especially if you compare it to the cost of reagents — amortizing over the amount of time it takes to produce high-quality work, pub costs are the cheapest reagent in the lab.

    The differential is certainly well within the reach of any lab well-funded enough to have a chance of publishing in either of those journals.

    And that’s for PLoS Biology, the most expensive choice. PLoS ONE’s pub costs are much less, only $1300 — almost always cheaper than Cell.

    Furthermore, PLoS will waive the pub fee if the authors really can’t pay it — e.g., if they’ve lost their funding or simply can’t cough up the dough. I am aware of no such provision in Elsevier’s policy, but I can’t state definitively that none exists.

  5. An advantage of online only publishing is that all figures cost the same and page limits aren’t really necessary. I rarely read papers in print form unless I happen to print one downloaded from online. Charging for color figures just seems outdated now.

  6. Also, the bit about the EB board is at the bottom of the article linked in this post. The excerpt:

    “As for the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, he said, “If it would have been put to me that [the journal] was just sort of a throwaway, then I would have said ‘no'” to serving on its editorial board. He said he was never paid for his role, adding that he “didn’t ever get [manuscripts] to review or anything like that,” while on the board, because the journal did not accept original manuscripts for review.”

  7. The comments here seem to have gone off topic on the cost of publishing in journals itself. It would be nice if you did a post about that sometime, I would be interested.

    Reading PLoS they rationalize their charges with
    “The administration of peer review, copy editing, production of high-quality tagged electronic files, web hosting, and so on are expensive processes”
    http://www.plos.org/about/faq.html#pubfees

    This is true, but it is difficult to believe that it really does cost $1000+ per paper. On the other hand, if everyone else charges this much then it is difficult to believe that there is some journal trust controlling the price.

    Popular media seems to manage making lots of money without charging providers for content, I suppose in the case of scientific journals the audience just isn’t large enough?

  8. hi,

    don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of OA publishing. But you’re cherry-picking examples to make a point: I wish it were the case that all my articles went into either Cell or PloS Biology! What if I want to publish my next paper in Soil Biol. Biochem.?

    Secondly, *of course* institutional support makes a difference. We used to have an institutional subscription to BioMed Central, which the college has now decided to discontinue. Given that I now have to find the OA charges from already-stretched consumables budgets, it’s an obvious temptation to go for a journal which is free-to-publish.

    (And apologies for getting off-topic.)

  9. @#7
    I think a lot of the upfront cost you’re looking at here is for some serious server hardware. This isn’t being run from some college dorm by a student with a GoDaddy account – these things HAVE to be available for all eternity, online, and that takes a pretty serious committment in terms of security, hardware, backups, emergency power supply, etc. Compare this to print, where it’s essentially “do a print run and forget it”. Granted $1000 seems a bit steep, but I would expect that to come down once the initial outlay has been covered.

  10. @Jake, thanks for your comments — I don’t consider these off-topic at all, since I started the ball rolling in my post with an explicit comparison of closed- and open-access publishing.

    Re: the cherry-picking issue: My goal here was to compare a very prominent closed-access journal to a very prominent open-access one, and thereby make an “apples to apples” comparison. I’d certainly be interested to see pub cost pricing comparisons between other journals, if anyone wants to present them.

    Beyond that: One thing that got lost in my original examples and the subsequent discussion is that price isn’t the only difference between the two systems — i.e., it’s not apples to apples in any case. When one publishes open-access, everyone in the world has immediate free access to the work. All things being equal, this should increase the rate of knowledge dissemination and the long-term impact of the work — so even if it costs more, the author is getting more for their money.

    And, again, PLoS is willing to waive fees, in whole or in part, if the authors can’t afford them, so I can’t see how the fees could ever prove decisive. I’m not sure whether BMC offers the same waiver — does anyone know?

  11. And also, not to miss Jake’s excellent point, with which I completely agree– pricing issues aside, institutions should be doing their part to support OA publication, and it’s a shame when they don’t.

  12. And also, not to miss Jake’s excellent point, with which I completely agree– pricing issues aside, institutions should be doing their part to support OA publication, and it’s a shame when they don’t.

  13. I don’t think we’re really in any disagreement: if all else were equal, I would choose to publish only in full OA journals. (We have a manuscript being reviewed at the moment by one of the BMC journals, for instance.)

    I surely agree that it’s better for all if scientific papers are universally free to access. It’s just that if I have to choose where to submit my next paper, and choice 1 will cost, say, £1500, and choice 2 will be free (e.g. one of the ACS journals), I’m tempted to go for the free-to-publish version – even if it will ultimately be worse for me in terms of reduced readership etc. If all my grant applications got funded, it’d be a different story.

    My point was this: someone, somewhere, has to pay for scientific publishing. From my own selfish point of view, I would prefer it if academic institutions would agree to pay OA fees up-front on a subscription basis: I think this would promote access to scientific information in general.

    (PS I haven’t tried requesting a fee waiver from any of the PLoS journals yet, so not sure how this works in practice? I think BMC will only generally offer a waiver if you work in a developing country, for instance – but they are a for-profit publisher so may have a different set of rules. I would like to try submitting something to PLoS ONE this year.)

  14. I have been reading a lot of stuff on Merck’s new scandal. Found your post very informative. And the comments are very relevant and an eye-opener. Keep up the good job.

    I am journalist from India, and I write a lot on Open Access journals.

  15. International Journal of Computer and Network Security (IJCNS) is free journal and author pay the fees for paper print journal only, accepting paper is difficult may be your paper is not accepted and you said fake.

    Reviewer IJCNS
    (http://www.ijcns.org/)

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