Elsevier Had A Whole Division Publishing Fake Medical Journals

from the doesn't-that-make-you-feel-safe? dept

Remember a week ago when we wrote about pharma giant Merck and publishing giant Elsevier working together to publish a fake journal that talked up various Merck drugs and was used by doctors to show that the drugs were safe and useful? Well, you knew the story wouldn’t end there, right? Slashdot points us to the discovery that there is actually a whole division at Elsevier that would publish such journals and tried to duck this fact before sort of (but not fully) admitting it:

In a statement to The Scientist magazine, Elsevier at first said the company “does not today consider a compilation of reprinted articles a ‘journal'”. I would like to expand on this ?statement: It was a collection of academic journal articles, published by the academic journal publisher Elsevier, in an academic ?journal-shaped package. Perhaps if it wasn’t an academic journal they could have made this clearer in the title which, I should have mentioned, was named: The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine.

Things have deteriorated since. It turns out that Elsevier put out six such journals, sponsored by industry. The Elsevier chief executive, Michael Hansen, has now admitted that they were made to look like journals, and lacked proper disclosure. “This was an unacceptable practice and we regret that it took place,” he said.

The pharmaceutical industry, and publishers, as we have repeatedly seen, have serious difficulties in living up to the high standards needed in this field, and bad information in the medical literature leads doctors to make irrational prescribing decisions, which ultimately can cost lives, and cause unnecessary suffering, not to mention the expense.

Doesn’t that make you feel safe about the drugs you take?

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Companies: elsevier, merck

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Comments on “Elsevier Had A Whole Division Publishing Fake Medical Journals”

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Albert Nonymous says:

Don't confuse the real world with the fictional one

“Doesn’t that make you feel safe about the drugs you take? “

For what it’s worth …

The pharmaceutical industry is just like any other large bureauocratic institution of the modern age. You have the usual players: Upper Management, Middle Management, Sales and Marketing, Various Generic Support Roles and finally the People Who Actually Know Something.

In my experience, given that pharma can indulge in the practice of “we only hire the best and brightest”, the scientists are for the most part top notch. Most of the people I know are motivated by doing good work and good science – they genuinely want to discover wonderful drugs that help people. Think about it – one doesn’t choose science as a specialty in college because of the money or the glory or to get laid – people flock to business school or “the latest hot career” for that. Or they try out for American Idol. So people that make it to the graduate level in science are genuinely motivated by a love for the work (for the most part) and that doesn’t vanish just because they managed to land a job at Big Pfarma.

The rest of the company is as one would expect based on the rest of the corporate world. Nobody has a clue what the scientists really do, and they don’t really care as long as the goose keeps laying the golden eggs. The technical folks who actually know how to do things and can get their hands dirty are viewed as second to the people with “ideas” and “vision”. Aka the folks that tend to misunderstand completely what is important and drive the company (or the economy) into the ground. The scientists wish they would just all go away but recognize them as a necessary evil so that the great drugs they do produce will find a market.

My point? These “fake journals” are almost certainly the work of Sales/Marketing and such and don’t necessarily have anything to do with the actual science (which nobody understands – that’s complicated technical stuff which we’re above). It undoubtedly happens with the complicity of politically-minded scientists with no chops who have gone native so they can add a veneer of plausibility, but honestly – those who care can see through the bullshit. The targets of these “fake journals” are likely journalists, clueless government bureaucrats and anybody else in the system who cheated their way through school rather than actually learn something. The actual scientists won’t go near these things, and their counterparts elsewhere are smart enough to recognize their absence and thus doubt the veracity of the reports.

If you still doubt me, remember that science is about independent reproducibility. Anyone attempting to reproduce the results in these fake journals will run into problems if what’s published is nonsense. Facts are facts, and the beauty of science is that facts are the ultimate arbiter of what people believe. If you can’t prove it and I can’t verify it, nobody believes it. No exceptions. (Unless you live in Kansas or the Deep South).

As far as I know, there are still enough checks and balances to filter this kind of nonsense out.

There isn’t a vast conspiracy to foist unsafe drugs on the populace in order to drain their pockets – that would require a rationality and level of cohesion that just doesn’t exist. The world of pharma is just as f’d up as Dilbert. And your own company. Really – it boggles the mind how anything gets done anywhere.

So. While this news is indeed disturbing and reprehensible, don’t assume it means that we are all going to be poisoned by our local druggist. Those who are swayed by this bullshit don’t matter, and those who aren’t are still trying to fight the good fight and make the world a better place. They really are.

This story says much more about the science publishing industry and how much value they are actually adding. Given the vigor with which they are fighting “open access”, it’s clear they have become too comfortable with their monopoly position and have forgotten their original mission.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Don't confuse the real world with the fictional one

“This story says much more about the science publishing industry and how much value they are actually adding.”

You hit the nail on the head. The real issue is these journal publishers are locking up access to valuable research. Some are so entrenched researchers have little choice but to surrender to the demands of the publishers. It is obscene these publishers claim copyright to research papers that were funded by tax payer dollars.

kirillian (profile) says:

Re: Don't confuse the real world with the fictional one

Just to get you thinking for a little bit while I go find the article I’m looking for…there was a recent study that determined that part of the reason that people flock to non-scientific methods of healing is that effective medicine tends to be viewed as ineffective and ineffective medicine tends to be seen in a better light than it actually is…mull that over a bit while I find that stinker…makes you wonder just how plausible your “reality” really is…just how much of our perception is skewed?

kirillian (profile) says:

Re: Re: Don't confuse the real world with the fictional one

@ Albert Nonymous –
Ok, so it didn’t take me long to find the article…It turned out to be an Ars Technica one:
Why Snake-Oil Sells
Reading this makes you wonder just how we can actually evaluate the effectiveness of the current medical industry from our own observation as it seems that perceived effectiveness very well could be mostly independent of actual effectiveness.
If that is the case, maybe, as you have so eloquently noted, our only hope for medicine is to trust that the science behind the corruption continues to be fruitful?

Albert Nonymous says:

Re: Re: Re: Don't confuse the real world with the fictional one

Snake Oil will always sell because there will always be stupid people and an abundance of those who want to exploit them. As much as those people need to be protected (from themselves and those who would exploit them), the answer isn’t in how to catch the Snake Oil salesmen, but in how to promote scientific discovery for what it is.

And what it is is simply a rational and systematic approach to understanding the world. Understanding most science is not beyond a bright high school or undergraduate student. Most of the education gleaned from graduate school is a combination of a) how to think independently in order to conduct effective research and b) domain specific knowledge to get up to speed on what defines the current leading edge of one’s field of choice. Think about it – in order to do cutting edge research, an 18-22 year old needs to spend about 10-40% of their time studying specifics (the rest being general broad-knowledge college stuff), plus about 2-4 years of immersive study in a focused field so they can actually contribute. Not to understand – to actively contribute. The understanding part is much easier.

What does that mean for the layman? Instead of filling one’s mind with what Britney Spears did lately, or Miley Cyrus or who won American Idol, one could get interested in somthing a bit more meaningful. Without much effort, one could get up to speed enough to understand what’s going on in a particular field of science. Really – it’s not a mystery and you don’t have to have a genius IQ to understand. *That* is how one fine-tunes the bullshit-detector.

Yeah – it’s nerdy. So much better to be able to toss a football, slam dunk or run/swim really really fast. Or just be pretty or sardonically clever or be able to pretend to be someone else convicingly.

But I’ll say it plainly. If you hear yourself whining about how the drug companies are out to screw everyone (they aren’t – they want as much of your money as possible, but not by killing you), or how science is so hard to understand because it’s all so contradictory … It’s not. The contradictory information comes from the popular press. You know – the folks who will say anything to attract eyeballs, viewers or subscribers. If it will sell, somebody will step forward to claim the rewards, facts be damned.

What is the answer? What it always was: self-reliance. If something sounds wrong, it probably is. Of course that takes effort. A few decades ago, figuring out why was a lot harder, what with the trip to the local library and all. These days, Google will lay more information at your feet than all your ancestors *combined* had available to them – in seconds. Nowadays, “self-reliance” isn’t about carving our your place in the wilderness any longer – it’s about using your mind and independent judgement to draw your own conclusions from the information available, not taking some expert’s word for it. Or at least being able to verify that the expert is qualified.

The dilemma is that there is too much information to personally absorb it all, so some level of trust is needed. Who to believe? That is an exercise left for the reader. All you need to know is that everything you need is readily available. The rest is up to you. Teach yourself or teach your children. Then teach those who will listen. That’s all you can do.

Well, building high walls and hiding behind them works for awhile too, but seems to fail eventually. They make for lovely ruins to visit on vacation though. 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Don't confuse the real world with the fictional one

When a drug company reformulates one medication and convinces doctors that it is better than the previous formulation, thus ensuring another patent and higher prices on the medication, then yes, they ARE trying to separate us from as much money as possible, which DOES lead to deaths. Why? Because people simply cannot afford the meds.

‘Snake oil’ as you call it isn’t always snake oil. People have been using home remedies for thousands of years. Granted, not all work. On the other hand, when I can smear some rosemary oil on my brow and cure both headache and sinusitis (the volatile oils relax blood vessels and and clear sinuses), then you can’t particularly claim it’s snake oil.

Albert Nonymous says:

Re: Don't confuse the real world with the fictional one

As a followup, I should maybe clarify the title, since I left that part out. In movies and in fiction, drug companies are often portrayed as evil companies in the thrall of an evil but powerful and smart elite. That’s not the case in reality. The elite isn’t smart in the sense that matters – culture and society has ensured that they don’t actually have to *know* anything – that’s nerdy and uncool. But producing pharmaceuticals is a science-driven enterprise that is beholden to reality. This isn’t the tobacco companies where you just have to harvest the leaves from the fields and then lie about their safety. One of the biggest Pfarmaceutial companies in the world is being led by a lawyer who used to work for McDonald’s, Boston Market and Chipotle Mexican Grill. How much do you think this person really knows about what it takes to produce an effective drug? The answer is: not much. Rest assured – the scientists who do understand things are spending as much energy trying to work around the damage caused by “Mr. Chipotle” as they are actually expending on doing their research. Thank you, shareholders and Board of Directors (that’s the polite version – the real version rhymes with “duck you”).

The real danger doesn’t come from vast conspiracies that make movies and novels exciting. Reality is more mundane than that. The real danger comes in the form of MBAs who think they know something but really have no clue about anything but how to pump up the stock so the next quarterly earnings report looks good to the shareholders. If the shareholders had a clue at all, they would be asking more questions, would be more worried, and would actually demand that someone with an actual clue were in charge.

Do I sound bitter? Yes I do. The Dark Ages as I understand them were caused by institutional ignorance as much as anything else. If you value and enjoy the benefits that science has brought you in the last 200 or so years, realize that anti-intellectualism and profit-minded corporatism isn’t the way to make things even better. It’s the way back to the Spanish Inquisition and the Black Plague.

“Bring out your dead!”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Don't confuse the real world with the fictional one

“As a followup, I should maybe clarify the title, since I left that part out. In movies and in fiction, drug companies are often portrayed as evil companies in the thrall of an evil but powerful and smart elite. That’s not the case in reality.”

I say bull, or at the very least it depends on your definition of evil. Most of Big Pharma is owned by a select group of plutocrats that I would DEFINITELY define as evil. Your definition may vary.

“This isn’t the tobacco companies where you just have to harvest the leaves from the fields and then lie about their safety”

No, it’s the Pharma industry, where you shift a meaningless gene or molecule around an existing drug so that you can recopyright it, remarket it as “new and improved”, and make sure that the only thing you’ve ACTUALLY “improved” is the price.

“One of the biggest Pfarmaceutial companies in the world is being led by a lawyer who used to work for McDonald’s, Boston Market and Chipotle Mexican Grill”

Maybe, but most of the top of big pharma are being led by people whose surnames suggest they are from one particular country. A quick review of the top 20 Big Pharma firms’ CEO’s and/or Chairmans results in an AWFUL lot of German names, despite very few German companies (Bayer’s the only one in the top 10)

“The real danger doesn’t come from vast conspiracies that make movies and novels exciting”

Again, it’s a matter of definitions. I see globalization as a potential danger. Ergo, CEO’s that wish to desseminate all over the globe and deal heavily in cultural nullification are a threat. How threatening is that McD’s resume look now?

Albert Nonymous says:

Re: Re: Re: Don't confuse the real world with the fictional one

I’ll be the first to claim naivety when it comes to the gory details of the pharma inner circles, so evil is a term to be interpreted.

I will say that Pharma is rooted in chemistry, which Germans were very strong in, so lots of German names in upper management of Pharma isn’t all that surprising. A decent amount of those folks may actually have a good background in medicinal chemistry and are thus actually qualified to be in leadership roles. I could interpret this as evidence of a good board of directors rather than evidence of evil based in middle europe.

As much as it might annoy people, asking a premium for something that actually works isn’t necessarily evil. Conservatively, my life expectancy is about 20 years greater than that of my father’s generation, so despite all the “evil”, something is being done right. I might balk at the cost of the bounty on my life, but I can’t dispute it’s effectiveness. Given the choice between life-saving medicine and the latest Flo Rida CD, I’d have to pick the former. I’d rather be bored and alive – dead with the latest entertainment doesn’t quite appeal to me as much.

Tgeigs says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Don't confuse the real world with the fictional one

You were responding to my post, forgot to input my name, hence the AC.

“I will say that Pharma is rooted in chemistry, which Germans were very strong in, so lots of German names in upper management of Pharma isn’t all that surprising”

Ok, but doesn’t that directly refute the original claim that the uppers don’t know the science? I would probably guess the reason for all the German names, in addition to they’re deep roots in the chemical sciences, would probably have a lot to do w/Op. Paperclip and the dessemination of Nazi scientists through it and the USSR equivalent.

As to the rest of your post, long lives does not equal better health, IMO. For instance, if you live 70 years, 10 of them w/Alzheimers, is that better tahn 65 years? There are some drugs w/some NASTY longterm side effects that need to be considered (my personal bane being aspartame).

Not swayed by the BS says:

Re: Don't confuse the real world with the fictional one

I totally agree with you up to the point where you say that “those who are swayed by this bullshit don’t matter.” Doctors eat this stuff up. And most people rely on their Dr. to know what’s what, even though they should not. Not that Docs are evil. They don’t have time to go and research every claim that their Pharma rep makes.

And then there are the “miracle cure” books. They quote the “journal” some other book quotes the first book and all of a sudden, it becomes a “fact” that drug X cures disease Y.

Eventually, it all comes out, like Thalidomide, but how many people are injured in the meantime?

Albert Nonymous says:

Re: Re: Don't confuse the real world with the fictional one

Well, that’s another really valuable piece of information to know. Despite the lofty pedestal society places them on, doctors aren’t really trained in science (though they are exposed to it and have no excuse). Doctors are extremely specialized and glorified mechanics of the human body. Smart doctors, or those who pursue degrees like M.D/Ph.D are qualified to understand science, but that’s not a prerequisite to being a good doctor.

So don’t take the word of your doctor if what he/she tells you seems wrong. They actually don’t know everything, even if they drive a BMW.

Ultimately it comes down to this: be willing to learn for ones self when necessary.

Oh, and at least be willing to support funding of science, since that’s where most of the information you need comes from. If you don’t have the time to digest it, the folks at Science News and Scientific American do.

Oh wait – the latest Britney video is on. See you later!

hodg says:

Re: Don't confuse the real world with the fictional one

I agree with much of what you say, but I disagree with one significant point. Of course scientists are working to try to make people’s lives better, but only a very small percentage of drugs developed actually work. Some drug companies die because they haven’t produced a new drug in years.

With this in mind, an unfortunate side effect is that questionable drugs get promoted. Some get promoted because they show promise, but ultimately produce serious side effects. Some get promoted even though they reproduce the benefits of other drugs without any real difference in efficacy or safety. Some get promoted even though serious side effects are shown because some of these bureaucrats see an opportunity to make a lot of money.

Even though checks and balances are in place, and science IS ultimately about reproducibility, the checks and balance of science work slowly, and lots of damage can be done in the interim. The truth of the matter is, doctors are very busy people, and most don’t take the time to read ALL the research on the drugs they prescribe. Lots of doctors rely on pharmaceutical representatives to provide them with accurate, unvarnished information, and as we have seen this often isn’t the case. Fake journals such as these only make the situation that much more serious.

mark Rosedale (profile) says:


So I only take one med, but I have long thought that if I ever did see a commercial that could “help” me out, I probably wouldn’t jump off the couch to go get a prescription anyway. Even if this scandal hadn’t have happened you know that there are always unintended or unforeseen complications once something hits the mass population. The most extreme case is with all the birth defects of the 50’s and such, but even more recently there have been medications pulled after coming to market for various reasons. So for me I like the conservative approach. I would rather know that the medication is relatively and proportionally safe with interactions and side effects well known.

Anonymous Coward says:

Al, you make some good points, but if it wasn’t for those evil corporate types that actually have to try to sell those drugs, those perfect researchers wouldn’t be doing what they are doing.

Also, you paint researchers as perfect, but alas, they are the ones who fudge their data or ignore issues. Maybe not for profit, but because they have put so much into a candidate or maybe because they were blinded to the facts in their rush to be published.

Its just human nature, assuming that money is the only thing that drives people to do things they shouldn’t is dangerous. Assuming academic type researches that are not in search of profit will be free from this type of research is wrong.

Albert Nonymous says:

Re: Re:

Oh lord no. Researchers aren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Being human beings like the rest of us (I’m not a researcher currently), they have a wide range of motivations too. Researchers will fake data, exploit grad students, steal ideas etc. in order to gain the advantages they value (recognition, peer respect, tenure, etc.).

However …

Science is one of the only things I have discovered in this life that seems to compensate effectively for human frailty and the powerful effect of money. There are checks and balances built into the infrastructure that seem to be effective. Sometimes it takes a generation to overthow the status quo, but it happens, and the system is skewed toward making that happen. And B.S. really doesn’t survive long – cold fusion went nowhere not because it was suppressed, but because it wasn’t reproducible. As I said before, facts are the ultimate arbiter, and you just can’t get away with lying in science for long. The truth will eventually be revealed.

The only thing that seems to come close are the checks and balances built into the U.S. system of government, and even they don’t seem to be that effective sometimes.

Also, keep in mind that modern drugs don’t sell if they don’t work (for the most part). After countless generations of ground up rhinoceros horns, Viagra actually does what countless “virility” drugs failed to do for centuries. Maybe millennia. Lipitor and other statins work remarkably well to the point where “miracle drug” might not be a misnomer. Many of your friends, relatives and acquaintances are alive because of these drugs. So painting pharma execs as “evil” because they have something that *actually works* and wish to get a premium price is a little disingenuous. They are no more evil than is the pop star that spent 6 months 40 years ago working on an album with the expectation of lifetime profits. The real evil is that, similar to the entertainment industry, the “evil executives” didn’t really have anything to do with the actual creation of the thing of value. Figure out a way to correct that problem in society and perhaps more people would produce novel things of value.

Anonymous Coward says:

For a while now, Elsevier has been charging outrageously high prices to universities for its legitimate journals (pretty much the highest in the industry).

It’s basically a great example of monopoly at work: research universities need the journals and have basically no choice but to pay, and individual scientists generally aren’t willing to publish papers in less prestigious journals just because those journals have more reasonable publishers.

Unfortunately, while this is a great scandal, I doubt it will affect the prestige of any of the individual legit Elsevier journals. I suppose it might make more universities consider canceling their Elsevier subscriptions though.

It would be a huge step in the right direction for congress to require that all NSF-supported (and DoD, etc.) peer-reviewed research papers be made freely available. Congress somehow managed to get this attached to a bill in 2007 for the NIH despite the publishing lobby, so I don’t see why they couldn’t do it for the NSF too.

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