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05/01/2009

Merck Makes Phony Peer-Review Journal

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It’s a safe guess that somewhere at Merck today someone is going through the meeting minutes of the day that the hair-brained scheme for the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine was launched, and that everyone who was in the room is now going to be fired.

The Scientist has reported that, yes, it’s true, Merck cooked up a phony, but real sounding, peer reviewed journal and published favorably looking data for its products in them. Merck paid Elsevier to publish such a tome, which neither appears in MEDLINE or has a website, according to The Scientist.

What’s wrong with this is so obvious it doesn’t have to be argued for. What’s sad is that I’m sure many a primary care physician was given literature from Merck that said, “As published in Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, Fosamax outperforms all other medications….” Said doctor, or even the average researcher wouldn’t know that the journal is bogus. In fact, knowing that the journal is published by Elsevier gives it credibility!

These kinds of endeavors are not possible without help. One of The Scientist’s most notable finds is a Australian rheumatologist named Peter Brooks who served on the “honorary advisory board” of this “journal”. His take: “I don’t think it’s fair to say it was totally a marketing journal”, apparently on the grounds that it had excerpts from peer-reviewed papers. However, in his entire time on the board he never received a single paper for peer-review, but because he apparently knew the journal did not receive original submissions of research. This didn’t seem to bother him one bit. Such “throwaways” of non-peer reviewed publications and semi-marketing materials are commonplace in medicine. But wouldn’t that seem odd for an academic journal? Apparently not. Moreover, Peter Brooks had a pretty lax sense of academic ethics any way: he admitted to having his name put on a “advertorial” for pharma within the last ten years, says The Scientist. An “advertorial”? Again, language unfamiliar to us in the academic publishing world, but apparently quite familiar to the pharmaceutical publishing scene.

It is this attitude within companies like Merck and among doctors that allows scandals precisely like this to happen. While the scandals with Merck and Vioxx are particularly egregious, we know they are not isolated incidents. This one is just particularly so. If physicians would not lend their names or pens to these efforts, and publishers would not offer their presses, these publications could not exist. What doctors would have as available data would be peer-reviewed research and what pharmaceutical companies produce from their marketing departments–actual advertisements.

Summer Johnson, PhD

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