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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Elsevier and Merck published fake medical journal

Bob Grant, Merck published fake journal, The Scientist, April 30, 2009. (Free registration required, or try BugMeNot.)

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 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 claim that Merck had created a journal out of whole cloth to serve as a marketing tool was first reported by The Australian about three weeks ago. It came to light in the context of a civil suit filed by Graeme Peterson, who suffered a heart attack in 2003 while on Vioxx, against Merck and its Australian subsidiary, Merck, Sharp & Dohme Australia (MSDA).

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." ...

In response to several questions about the publication posed by The Scientist, an MSDA spokesperson wrote in an email: "MSDA understood that Elsevier envisaged the complimentary publication would draw on the vast resources of Elsevier, publishers of many leading peer-reviewed journals including Lancet, Bone, Joint Bone Spine and others, to deliver novel and timely full text articles and abstracts to physicians." Many of the articles appearing in the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine were in fact reprints or summaries of studies that originally appeared in other Elsevier journals.

A spokesperson for Elsevier, however, told The Scientist, "I wish there was greater disclosure that it was a sponsored journal." Disclosure of Merck's funding of the journal was not mentioned anywhere in the copies of issues obtained by The Scientist.

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." ...


  • Remember this anecdote the next time someone raises the common myth that OA journals are lower quality or that OA is about bypassing quality control. Closed access does not guarantee high quality, even from the most prominent publishers.
  • On the contrary, some argue that if the "journal" had been OA, the concerns might have been detected earlier.

Update. See also comments by Robert Helling:

... I think nobody in the world can claim anymore that our libraries should throw big money at these commercial publishing houses because they provide the quality control that open access publication cannot provide.