Elsevier Publicists Go Too Far

Jun.25.09 | About: RELX PLC (RELX)

Via a reader comes this article, which takes us to Elsevier's (RUK) hard-hitting textbook publishing operation. The co-authors of a psychology text for the publisher were recently taken aback to get this e-mail from a publicist at the company:

Congratulations and thank you for your contribution to Clinical Psychology. Now that the book is published, we need your help to get some 5 star reviews posted to both Amazon and Barnes & Noble to help support and promote it. As you know, these online reviews are extremely persuasive when customers are considering a purchase. For your time, we would like to compensate you with a copy of the book under review as well as a $25 Amazon gift card. If you have colleagues or students who would be willing to post positive reviews, please feel free to forward this e-mail to them to participate. We share the common goal of wanting Clinical Psychology to sell and succeed. The tactics defined above have proven to dramatically increase exposure and boost sales. I hope we can work together to make a strong and profitable impact through our online bookselling channels.

George Tremblay of Antioch U. blew the whistle on this one, which is a good deed. But, cynical person that I am, it makes me wonder how many others on the list might have been ready to pitch in. And given that this has apparently been done before (hey, this is a "proven" strategy), you also have to wonder about five-star reviews of other textbooks published by Elsevier. And other houses, too?

I ask because the company's director of public relations has come out to explain just where this latest tactic went too far - and I have to say, it's a bit further along the line than many people might have thought:

Encouraging interested parties to post book reviews isn't outside the norm in scholarly publishing, nor is it wrong to offer to nominally compensate people for their time, some of these books are quite large," he said. "But in all instances the request should be unbiased, with no incentives for a positive review, and that's where this particular e-mail went too far.

So when you're encouraging people to write reviews, and offering them some baksheesh for doing so, that's fine. You just don't want to be so gauche as to actually come out and say that you want the reviews to be positive. This does not make Elsevier look good, of course, coming as it does after the reheated-tray-of-friendly-leftovers journal scandal in Australia. (And let's not forget the, um, unusual case of El Naschie and his private Elsevier journal of nonsense). They either are the poor victims of widely scattered unethical promotions staff, or (just perhaps) there's a general culture in that department that allows people to think that these things are acceptable practice.