For Shame, Merck and Elsevier
Everyone makes mistakes—it's how you handle them that matters.
Merck and Elsevier, two life sciences giants, are taking different tacks in responding to a crisis that arose from an ill-judged publishing collaboration. Will the company that keeps schtum get away scott free while the one that engages takes a substantial hit?
The background: My colleague Bob Grant recently wrote a news story1 about a curious publication, The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine. It sounds like a respectable journal, but it isn't. Published in the early 2000s, it contained a mix of local and international "news", reprinted articles from Elsevier journals, and unsigned Reviews.
The problem was this: The publication was invented to support Merck drugs and the AJBJM was entirely paid for by Merck, yet nowhere was the relationship disclosed. It was a stealth marketing campaign to Australian doctors under the guise of a regular journal.
Grant's article generated significant news coverage in the media and a massive negative reaction towards both companies in the blogosphere. Not just from the usual anti-pharma extremists—more temperate science and librarian groups were, rightfully, alarmed.
Joint projects between the pharmaceutical industry and science publishers are not undesirable. In fact, at The Scientist (and in my previous position at Nature) I spend a portion of my time on them. For example, the award-winning supplement that we published on schizophrenia, supported by Johnson & Johnson, is widely used by patient groups and in teaching. And the sponsorship revenue helps keep this magazine afloat.
But we always make it clear when content is sponsored. In supplements, the role of the sponsor is described and acknowledged in an editorial, and sponsored content within the magazine is labeled "Special Advertising Section". In addition, we don't use our staff writers for sponsored projects, which helps prevent conflicts of interest.
Elsevier and Merck erred in failing to make the sponsorship of AJBJM clear to readers.
In response to a list of questions about the journal, Merck shamefully ducked responsibility: Merck and its Australian subsidiary "understood that Elsevier envisaged the complimentary publication would draw on the vast resources ... to deliver novel and timely full text articles and abstracts to physicians," they wrote. "We believe that your remaining questions are most appropriately directed to Elsevier, the publisher of the Journal."
For Elsevier, the stakes are much higher than for Merck. Publishing is their livelihood and they must maintain a good reputation. They acknowledged the mistake.
Bob Grant was told by a spokesperson: "I wish there was greater disclosure that it was a sponsored journal," but he maintained that Elsevier had no plans to look into the matter. That changed, likely in response to the widespread criticism of the "sordid subterfuge," as one comment on our Web site alleged. Within a week, the CEO of Elsevier's Health Sciences Division, Michael Hansen, released a statement that included: "This was an unacceptable practice, and we regret that it took place." He admitted that six different Titles appeared in the series, and stated that they are conducting an internal review.2
Kudos to Elsevier. But they need to go further.
They need to provide the names of the sponsors of the six faux journals. Who besides Merck colluded in "unacceptable practice"?
They should also release financial information. I'd like to know the price that bought the integrity of one of the leading science publishers.
At that point, I'll be happy to accept that "the integrity of Elsevier's publications and business practices remains intact," as the Elsevier spokesperson maintains. I know Elsevier from the inside—they gave me my first job in publishing.
I've met many Merck people too, including the CEO, and they have impressed me greatly. It's a distinguished company that does indispensible work. But Merck needs to maintain the highest standards in everything they do. They have to come clean on AJBJM.