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A Fake Scientific Literature

2009 May 12
by Richard N. Landers
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The success or failure of academia revolves around the integrity of its journals – the “trade mags,” so to speak, of each academic area.  Which makes it all the more disturbing that major academic publisher Elsevier produced at least six fake journals in which pharmaceutical companies, including Merck, published probably fake academic research that they could reference in order to sell their products.

Merck apparently paid Elsevier to publish the quite legitimate-sounding Australian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, along with five others.  Don’t even try Google – this journal does not and has never had a website, and furthermore does not appear in any academic databases, although I managed to locate a PDF copy of one of the issues here.  Instead, this journal sits quietly behind the scenes, out of sight, where Merck can reference it when they need to sell you on the effectiveness of their products.  Articles never go through the peer review process that maintains quality levels in real academic journals, so the material could be written by anyone the pharmaceutical companies paid.

This represents a serious breach of trust between academics and journal publishers.  All I can know for sure is that Elsevier produces at least one legitimate journal – my very first published article, submitted while I was an undergraduate, was in an Elsevier publication: Computers in Human Behavior. And believe me, there was a peer-review process.  But what about the others?  Academia functions solely because of trust – we trust that other researchers don’t fake their data, conduct due dilligence in investigating their findings, correctly run the statistical tests they claim to, and actually run the research that they write about.  When that trust is lost, science cannot advance, because you can’t believe that anyone has actually done anything that they claim to have done.

So what do we do about it?  Well, there’s the problem.  Elsevier publishes an astonishing amount of material in all fields, including psychology: over 2000 journals, according to their website.  So is boycotting Elsevier a realistic option?  Cutting off the problem at the source?  Probably not for most.  Academics survive on the publication of their research, and excluding the largest outlet in the world is probably not a good idea career-wise.  Much like the banking industry, Elsevier is apparently too big to fail, regardless of how unethical their publishing practices may be.

If you personally want to hold Elsevier responsible for their actions, feel free to personally boycott the journals they publish, but be aware that unfortunately this includes several high-profile journals in psychology like Intelligence.  You can find the full list here.  The question that bothers me is – if you boycott the publisher, who ultimately gets hurt?  The libraries will still order their copies, the database vendors will still index the same articles, and Elsevier will still get the same cash they were getting before.  All that would happen, as far as I can tell, is that you’d fail to cite a researcher who didn’t do anything wrong.

Is there a solution?  Many have been calling for an overhaul of the publishing industry in academia for a long time.  Some have claimed the solution is to move all publishing to online open-access journals, but then there is no real centralized system of accountability, and we have the same problems that we have now – anyone can publish anything they want, as long as they have the money.  If anyone has the answer, many are listening.

Update (5/18): Through this blog, I discovered that Elsevier provided a statement about their actions in this matter.  See for yourself.

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  1. Fletcher Christensen permalink
    May 12, 2009

    Wow. I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised. Drugs are big money, and I’ve felt for a while now that a publishing system designed to deal with 18th and 19th century academic issues was probably maladaptive to dealing with 21st century scholarship. But if this is as nefarious as seems to be implied, then this constitutes genuine academic fraud.

    Me and my overly stringent viewpoint, we would support revisiting the credentialing of any academic who knowingly participated in such a fraud. I suspect any number of people could get suckered into this sort of thing – the number of journals is so large these days that scholars can’t be entirely faulted for not knowing a whole lot about the venues in which they publish. But someone, somewhere, had to understand that this was essentially defrauding the academic community, and anyone who willfully subverts the peer review process for personal gain has no business in academia.

    Plagiarism is academic fraud. Claiming a PhD without having written and defended a thesis is academic fraud. I don’t see how knowingly publishing data and analysis that won’t hold up under peer review in an unscrutinized venue is any better.

  2. May 12, 2009

    Well, the problem is that at-first-glance impartial magazines devoted to selling products are apparently pretty common in medicine (I imagine those fake talk show commercials on TV). Mimicking an academic journal is a step further than that, but it’s close enough that many doctors don’t see a difference. Take this quote from the piece:

    — These kinds of endeavors are not possible without help. One of The Scientist’s most notable finds is a Australian rheumatologist named Peter Brooks who served on the “honorary advisory board” of this “journal”. His take: “I don’t think it’s fair to say it was totally a marketing journal”, apparently on the grounds that it had excerpts from peer-reviewed papers.

    The whole thing reeks of careful, planned manipulation and extortion. Take this quote too:

    — 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.

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