Merck paid Elsevier to create fake medical journal

In a delightful case of hypocrisy, the mega-academic publisher Elsevier produced a fake medical journal - with the superficial appearance of legitimacy - for money. Apparently the pharmaceutical company Merck needed another journal to publish favorable articles about Vioxx, and Elsevier was happy to oblige. This is on top of Merck's activity paying doctors to list their names as authors on studies favorable to Vioxx - studies that the doctors had little or no involvement in - which I blogged about in May and October of last year.

The new findings were reported recently in The Scientist (free subscription required), and they came to light in The Australian a few weeks prior to that. We only learned about this fraud - and that's what it is - because of a lawsuit filed by an Australian man who suffered a heart attack while on Vioxx. In testimony at the trial, a medical editor testified that
"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]." (MSDA is a subsidiary of Merck.)
The fake journal is called The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, and it is published by Elsevier.

Why is this especially hypocritical? Well, it shows that large publishers, including Elsevier, who have been opposing open access so vigorously, are, well, just blowing smoke in our eyes (to put it politely). Elsevier and others claim that they are guardians of academic quality and integrity, and that they provide an invaluable (or at least very expensive) service by editing the many journals that they sell to libraries and scientists around the world. As the open access movement has gained momentum, they even created an anti-open-access lobbying group, PRISM which they claim will help "to safeguard the scientific and medical peer-review process."


Now it turns out that this is just the tip of the iceberg. As The Scientist reported last week, Elsevier published not one, but at least 6 fake journals since the year 2000, all sponsored by (still-unnamed) pharmaceutical companies. Remarkable.

As a fellow blogger commented:
"The bitter irony is that Elsevier, along with the other major academic publishers, have spent the last few years ceaselessly lobbying against the open access movement, on the grounds that open access journals can’t be trusted to maintain the high quality of peer review that the commercial publishers provide."
The hypocrisy is breathtaking. It's stories like these that feed the paranoia of anti-big-pharma groups and other conspiracy theorists. Once in a while, there really is a conspiracy.

p.s. the blogosphere has many posts on this episode. See Jonathan Eisen's post, which has links to others.

Password foolishness

This is not one of my usual topics, so pardon me for the digression. I'm more than a bit annoyed about all these passwords I'm supposed to use and remember, and I've just got to say something about this latest one - and practice a little civil disobedience at the bottom of this post.

Let me explain. (And apologies for an “inside the ivory tower” blog this week. If you're not an academic, you might want to read one of my earlier posts instead.)

I’m a member of a panel—called a study section—that reads and reviews research proposals to the NIH. In the past, NIH used to send us a large box (by FedEx) with all the proposals, but for a few years now they’ve been sending us the entire set on CD, which is far more efficient.

Last year, someone at NIH got the bright idea to password-protect every proposal on the CD. This means that even though I have the CD, I can’t open and read any proposal without the password. To get the password, I have to login to the NIH website using another password. The CD password, mind you, is a one-time password that only works for this CD – at each meeting of the study section, we get a new CD and a new password.

We have to type in the password EVERY time we open a proposal. This means that when we have the actual meeting, each of us is frantically typing in the password every time we try to open a proposal. At the first meeting after NIH came up with this brilliant idea, every member of the study section protested to our NIH program officer (the guy who runs the panel), and he said he would pass on our plea. Not surprisingly, the response from the NIH bureaucracy was: nothing.

So here’s what drove me over the edge. I’m at a conference this week, and I figured I could use the travel time to start reading proposals for my next study section meeting. I’d loaded the proposals onto my laptop, and I thought I was all set. But then I tried to open the first one. “Please enter a Document Open password” stared back at me. What the heck? I had forgotten about the password protection on the CD, and I was without an Internet connection, so I had no way to read the proposal.

This is ridiculous. Does NIH want us to read the proposals, or not? The password protects one CD, for use at only one meeting. This is nothing more than security “theater” – imposing bogus security measures to give the appearance of improving security, while in fact doing nothing but making the reviewers’ job more difficult.

Well, I’ve had enough. I’m putting the password to my NIH CD right here, and I encourage members of every other study section to join me in this bit of civil disobedience. Maybe we’ll get the security zealots at NIH to stop it.

The password for my NIH study section’s CD is: AJAY$1JAIN

Okay, now I’m in trouble.