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.