Monday, June 8, 2009

Forget the Fake Journal; It's a Fake Merck Library

A while back I posted about the mini-scandal Down Under as it was revealed that Merck had been publishing a fake bone-joint journal extolling several of its products:

According to this recent blog from Canada--

--the scandal is growing due to revelations that it wasn't just one fake journal. Apparently Merck had been working with the publisher Elsevier to put out an entire medical library of journals, in all relevant specialties, each one the "Australasian Journal of Such-and-Such." It seems now that Merck paid Elsevier to produce 9 of these fakes and planned an additional 13.

Non-medical people might be a bit puzzled by what is going on here so let me add some background.

In the 1940s and 1950s, direct mail was one of the major ways that drug firms advertised to doctors. Some of the direct mail ads took the form of newsletters or mini-magazines. These were clearly labeled by the name of the drug firm and everyone knew it was advertising.

Doctors eventually got sick of their mailboxes being flooded daily with this deluge of ads and so direct mail lost popularity. Drug print advertising then shifted to two venues. First, Drug companies bought ad space in "respectable" peer-reviewed journals such as JAMA and The New England Journal. These ads were clearly marked as ads and were kept separate from the editorial content of the journal. Second, many "throwaway" journals were published. These were sent free to physicians, and their contents were not subject to the scientific peer review process used by the "respectable" journals. They had both ads and articles, but the articles often extolled various drugs and were not expected to be written with the rigor or without bias in the way that would characterize a peer-reviewed journal. Everyone knew that these journals relied for their entire existence on drug company ads and so were essentially the creatures of the drug industry. The "respectable" journals were indexed in the Index Medicus of the National Library of Medicine (later Medline and now, Pubmed); the "throwaway" journals were not.

Now, enter Merck and Elsevier. As detailed in my previous post, what seems different about this more recent bit of skullduggery was the company's attempt, with the publisher's full acquiescence apparently, to produce a journal that would look to the casual reader just like a "respectable" peer reviewed journal, creating the impression that all its articles had received the careful scientific review that characterizes such journals. Yet in reality the journal content was solely the in-house product of the drug company--in short, a throwaway journal in peer-reviewed, indexed clothing.

Merck looks a bit silly here for trying to advertise while pretending that it was not advertising. But the real bouquet of skunk cabbage has to go to Elsevier. Here is a major publisher that preens itself because it puts out so many highly respectable, peer-reviewed, indexed journals, willing to compromise the integrity of its own products by producing a set of cheap imitation journals, just to make a quick buck (or millions of them, more likely). Elsevier has not yet revealed what Merck paid it to do this dirty work, which is in keeping with what I wrote about in HOOKED-- the big journal publishers are very tight with their financial data and figure what they do is none of your business.

1 comment:

Pharmacy School Applicant Database said...

caught red-handed! what are the repercussions for this kind of crime? probably a slap on wrist like a fine?