More on Elsevier, fake journals, and mysteries of exposure

For some reason this blog has been getting really good exposure on google in general, I’m not sure why. Perhaps that’s what led to my previous post on Elsevier’s fake medical journal getting listed on slash dot today too. I feel a bit odd that my post is getting so much exposure — I thought I was writing for other electronic resources librarians who dealt with Elsevier and should know about these shenanigans. I didn’t expect I’d be read as a source on the issue in general. I don’t actually understand what’s going  on, I’m not a medical librarian, I don’t really have the context to understand the details I reported.

But since people are apparently reading me, now I feel a responsibility not to mis-represent the issue by missing the forest for a salient tree, so I’ll try to point you to some folks who have more of a clue than me. Thanks to Christina Pikas for alerting me to the Laika’s MedLibLog blog, and that blog for pointing us to the PLoS article, among other good cited reading.

Recently, it was reported that Elsevier changed their position from “we have no plans to look into this further”, to an “internal review”.

A medical librarian has provided more context then I can (along with actual citations),  over at Laika’s MedLibLog.  The author there makes the very good point that publishing fake journals actually isn’t the most troubling thing that “medical education and communications companies” like Excerpta Medica, the Elsevier subdiary do: far more dangerous is getting sponsored marketting and managed research into “real” journals. These can even be articles written by marketing staff, but with the name of an academic researcher who didn’t write it put on it.  This (two year old!) article from PLoS Medicine is a good introduction.

And Elsevier is not the only journal publisher to have a subsidiary that’s a “medical education and communication company” — basically what the industry calls medical PR/marketing firms.  Not to mention MECCs that are not subsidiaries of journal publishers.

Laika’s MedLibLog has some citations to articles examining this phenomenon, and writes:

However, In my opinion we have to fear more from the strategic publication planning of the MECCs in authentic journals then the fake Australian Excerpta series. Firstly, because the known Journals are far more trustworthy and have far more impact than the throwaways. Secondly because the phenomenon of ghostwriting is widespread, also among “first class Journals”. A conservative benchmark for ghostwriting of papers published in biomedical journals is roughly 10%[2], but in particular cases the percentage may be much higher [1]. This has caused Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ to sigh that “Medical Journals Are an Extension of the Marketing Arm of Pharmaceutical Companies.”

At least 10% of articles in biomedical journals are written by marketting departments, not by the named academic author?!?  How can this not be grounds for dismissal if the academic lending his/her name is found out?  I don’t get it. But like I said, I’m no medical librarian.

And it gets worse than this too, Merck (with or without Excerpta Medica’s help/advice?) also basically tried to destroy any doctors that critisized it.  A column at the Guardian writes:

The first fun thing to emerge in the Australian case is email documentation showing staff at Merck made a “hit list” of doctors who were critical of the company, or of the drug. This list contained words such as “neutralise”, “neutralised” and “discredit” next to the names of various doctors.

“We may need to seek them out and destroy them where they live,” said one email, from a Merck employee. Staff are also alleged to have used other tactics, such as trying to interfere with academic appointments, and dropping hints about how funding to institutions might dry up. Institutions might think about whether they wish to receive money from a company like that in future. Worse still, is the revelation that Merck paid the publisher Elsevier to produce a publication.

I’m not sure that last thing is the worst “still”!

The fake journal thing can be explained in one sentence, and is obviously ridiculous to everyone that hears it.  It’s good that bad publicity has forced Elsevier to at least undertake a PR response strategy (a “review”); but the fake journal issue doesn’t begin to address the pervasive control exersized by pharmaceutical companies of large swaths of medical research and publishing.   They need to get some bad publicity for all of that.  Why does the fake journal thing get the publicity, but the PLoS Medicine expose of the pervasive control of biomedical research by pharmaceuticals not?

And there’s plenty of blame to go around, like the academic researchers who lend their names to these marketting efforts in return for pharma funding.

Note to medical libraries and librarians:  Accept your mission

My heading ‘forensic librarianship’ in my previous blog post was actually mostly a joke, because I actually did very little, and no more than anyone could have easily done. But I do think that librarians have a key role in all this. We as a profession are supposed to be the experts in understanding published research. I’m no medical librarian, I don’t know what’s going on. But this is a really good opportunity for medical librarians to remind people why they are still necessary even in a post-google area.   Medical librarians ought to be trying to use this case to expose pharmaceutical influence on biomedical research publications in general; that’s what librarians are for, right?

Just hopefully librarians who are actual subject specialists, unlike me. A library ought to expect it’s research librarians to research such things, as part of their jobs, I would suggest.  Of course, those academic medical librarians work for the same institutions that are getting all that pharma funding, but at least a librarian isn’t individually funded by pharma like a researcher.  Ideally that could give them more lattitude to ‘bite the hand’, but really only if supported by their employing libraries. It would be exciting (and appropriate) for librarianship if medical librarians took the lead on researching, publishing, and educating on the still under-reported issue of pharma control of biomedical research publications, keeping this issue alive long after Elsevier (inevitably, eventually) promises to not to publish any more fake journals, but while control of research publication by pharma and MECCs continues.


6 thoughts on “More on Elsevier, fake journals, and mysteries of exposure

  1. It is perhaps true that your acts of forensic librarianship were not more than the average librarian could have done. But that you did them and then posted the results speaks highly of your sense of professional values. And that others recognized it and reposted the link elsewhere reinforces this. Kudos to you (and Jacqueline and Bill) for not only your forensic librarianship but also your budding citizen journalism for shedding light on the story.

  2. This is an incredibly eye opening report and I am really glad that this farse is being exposed…Without evidence I’ve been suspecting something like this was brewing in the pharma/medical community for a long time, but knowing these facts gives me power to inform others about the confusion about drugs and research that pervades this field of knowledge. Thank you guys for an amazing investigative report.

  3. To ensure that your excellent coverage of this issue and that provided by others does not go down the memory hole, I’ve updated the “Criticism” section of the LIS Wiki entry on Elsevier to include links to your posts and those of others on this issue. I’ve also added a few links regarding the El Naschie/Chaos, Solitons and Fractals issue.

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