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06/04/2009

Merck Passes The Buck, Elsevier Fails to Go Far Enough in Phony Journal Scandal

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As the story continues to unfold in the Elsevier-Merck phony journal scandal, one can hardly believe that at some point in the process of creating an entire division of not one, not six, but now we have learned from The Scientist today, 9 journals in the “Australasian Journal of’ series”.

Better yet, this wasn’t an isolated series Elsevier has revealed: 13 more journals were in the words with ISSN numbers assigned to “journals” with names like the Australasian Journal of Psychiatry and Core Journals in Oncology. These, however, were never printed.

As Richard Gallagher pointed out in his editorial in this month’s Scientist, “everyone makes mistakes–it’s how you handle them that matters.” Merck’s current stance on all of these matters is as follows: “We believe that your remaining questions are most appropriately directed to Elsevier, the publisher of the Journal.”

Simply because Elsevier took the bait doesn’t mean Merck is off the hook. Elsevier is rightfully taking the heat for agreeing to create entire divisions of publications that an Elsevier spokesperson admitted “should not have been called ‘journals’.” What an admission! What to call a publication such as these really is the question–perhaps they will fade into oblivion such that we will not have to give them a name. Not a chance.

Elsevier says that they are drafting new policies, to be in place by the end of June such to prevent anything like this scandal again. Instead, they plan to create a clear delineation between the AJBJM’s of the world and actual peer-reviewed journals: “to ensure that such publications are not confused with Elsevier’s core peer reviewed journals and that the sponsorship of any publication is clearly disclosed.”

There is one matter, that neither Merck nor Elsevier, is willing to put the spotlight on: how much money was spent on creating this phony journal empire. Elsevier maintains that it will not discuss its contractual arrangements with its clients–not an unreasonable posture under normal circumstances–but in this case, the public deserves to know what an academic publishing division can be bought for and turned into a marketing division for a pharmaceutical company.

If Elsevier really wants to put this scandal behind them, they must throw the doors open wide and disclose everything–including how much they were paid. Eventually the facts will come out. When they do–and I’m only guessing the figure is astronomical–Elsevier will look like they were hiding some very dirty laundry. Merck already is passing the buck and leave Elsevier holding the bag. Thus far it looks like they are succeeding.

If Elsevier wants to win that war, they should disclose everything and fast–for their own moral integrity, public confidence, and to put this huge debacle behind them. Only then will they be able to restore the sense that they are trying to do the right thing and that they have nothing more to hide.

Summer Johnson, PhD

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