Ethics and Publishing

Things have been kind of hectic for me lately.  I have been working on MLA’s Official Blog for the Annual Meeting and I recently moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress.  Add in my regular work and life events and I have been one busy person.  So I apologize if I am a little late addressing this recent news item, but I have been wanting to blog about it for some time.

It was recently discovered that Elsevier published six publications between 2000 and 2005 that were sponsored and by a drug company.  The publications were made to look like peer reviewed medical journals and the sponsorship behind the journals was not disclosed. 

According to a post by Bob Grant on The (free with free registration) Elsevier is conducting an “internal review.”  The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine is at the heart of the allegations.  The publications were paid for by Merck and the contents were basically a “compendium of reprinted scientific articles and one source reviews, most of which presented data favorable to Merck’s products.” 

According to an Elsevier spokesperson, the sponsored article publications were put out by the Australia office, bore the Excerpta Medica imprint from 2000-2005 and published under the titles; Australasian Journal of General Practice, the Australasian Journal of Neurology, the Australasian Journal of Cardiology, the Australasian Journal of Clinical Pharmacy, the Australasian Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine, and the Australasian Journal of Bone & Joint [Medicine].

This story is continually evolving.  Since broke the story, op-ed columns and blogs have been weighing in on the topic.  Slashdot pointsto two interesting posts by librarian bloggers Bibliographic Wilderness and Laika’s MedLibLog.  Ben Goldacre wrote in The Guardian about information emerging in an Australian court case regarding a Merck and Vioxx case.  The information revealed email documentation of a “hit list” of doctors critical of the company or the drug.   According to The Guardian the hit list included words such as “neutralise”, “neutralised” and “discredit” next to the doctors’ names.  Goldacre reports that subsequent emails described other unethical tactics such as interfering with academic appointments and reducing funding.  Of course Elsevier is not the only publisher to have been accused of these type of tactics.  The Wall Street Journal Health Blog reported on JAMA’s actions last spring when two professors contacted JAMA regarding an article where the author may have had a possible conflict of interest and later then published a Rapid Response in BMJ regarding possible connections between the author of JAMA article and the drug company. 

All of this is very unsettling.  Now that the horse is out of the barn and Elsevier has admitted to publishing sponsored articles and falsely presenting them peer reviewed, what happens?  Are there any real repercussions?  What is to stop the next drug company from doing the same thing (only better so we don’t find out)? How do we get those junk articles out of the medical system.  They are already out there printed in the real world, how is the average physician who doesn’t read blogs going to know about them?  The mainstream media (Newsweek, CNN, MSNBC) and other news agencies have been curiously quite regarding this, yet I hear about the stupid swine flu every time I turn on the T.V.  If you think the average doctor reading the articles should just “know” you might be wrong.  According to testimony in a trial, George Jelinek, Australian physician and member of the World Association of Medical Editors, said the “average reader” could easily mistake the publication for “genuine” peer reviewed medical journal. 

So what happens next? Is there anyway to right the wrong?

6 thoughts on “Ethics and Publishing”

  1. The key is that the clinician is getting help from a competent medical librarian. I just think of all of those physicians out there who either don’t think they have access to a medical library or librarian or think that they can find information just good as a librarian can. Plus there are those doctors who were given this journal (or copies of articles within it) when the drug visited.
    I worry about those things.

  2. Maybe ask other publishers to make a statement that they haven’t done this, and maybe have a warning flag in bibliographic databases to highlight any publications from suspect journals.

  3. Well, if the clinician is getting help from a competent medical librarian, that librarian would note he/she has never heard of the journal and can’t find any other issue of it on record or any information about it.

    I’ve been hearing librarians call Elsevier “evil” for years now. This is th first real proof I’ve seen, but it doesn’t change he fact that they own information clinicians (and researchers and scientists) need. They’ll get away with it with almost no repercussions. What I would like (and don’t expect ever to see) is authors mass-boycotting Elsevier and refusing to publish in their journals.

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