Merck and Elsevier Cross the Line in Joint Medical 'Journal'

Includes: MRK, RELX
by: Derek Lowe

I've been meaning to write about the latest advance in salesmanship, pioneered by Merck (NYSE:MRK) and Elsevier (RUK). As most of you will have heard, the two collaborated to produce something called "The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine". This appears to have looked like a real journal, complete with the Elsevier logo and a board of review editors, but it apparently featured nothing but articles (complimentary articles, needless to say) about Merck products.

The news broke about a month ago in The Australian, and the story has been rolling downhill ever since, getting larger all the way. Now Elsevier has issued a public apology for their part in the whole affair, as well they should.

As Orac points out, there are a lot of "throwaway" journals out there, particularly in the medical field. These are sort of once-over-lightly review journals, condensing the literature down into short reads. And that's not all bad, although you wouldn't want a physician to be getting all his or her news that way. But this latest venture was designed to look like a real journal, and was, in fact, full of real articles which had been reprinted from other Elsevier journals. That's well over the line.

I'm not sure who to be more mad at here: Merck or Elsevier. This one really looks like a team effort. If Merck wants to assemble a bunch of previously peer-reviewed studies and put them out under some banner to show how wonderful their drugs were, well, that's fine by me. But that banner shouldn't be something that's deliberately designed to look like a peer-reviewed journal itself. And the collection should have a disclaimer on the cover that it's being paid for by Merck, and the first page of every article should have another box: "As originally reported in (journal citation) - brought to you as a service by Merck". I wouldn't have a problem with that at all.

But that (completely above-board) style seems to be just what the company wanted to avoid, and they got Elsevier, a large and (apparently spottily) respectable scientific publisher to say "Yes, indeed!". Merck's marketing people should be ashamed of themselves, but they should be ashamed for doing what they're paid to do too vigorously. Elsevier, on the other hand, shouldn't be doing this sort of thing at all.