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.