I have posted a number of previous notes about how pharmaceutical companies have manipulated the flow of information available to physicians during medical conferences and lectures in order to promote their products. Examples include the following: Pharma-Free CME Activities: Is This the Right Approach?, Relationship of Pharmaceutical Companies to Continuing Medical Education, On the Corrosive Influence of Big Pharma on Academic Physicians). I thought that there was no news about the ethics of this industry that could shock me until I recently discovered that Merck had created a phony medical journal from scratch called the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine with the connivance of the medical publisher Elsevier (see: Merck Makes Phony Peer-Review Journal). Below is an excerpt from the story:
The [Scientist.com] 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....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? ....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
This is truly disturbing news. I am sure that everyone who reads this note is aware of the time, effort, and expense of launching a new medical journal and, more importantly, the number of people involved in such a project. More importantly, probably most of these people understood that such a publication was unethical at best and perhaps illegal. I must confess that I blame the publisher Elsevier as much as I blame Merck for this scandal. Perhaps this incident will accelerate the transition to electronic medical journals that will be less expensive to publish and, hopefully, less expensive or free for subscribers. In fact, this incident may be an example of a medical publishing company like Elsevier seeking financial support for a hardcopy journal under the dying business model that it better understands.
In a recent blog note (see: Corporate Support for Continuing Medical Education Conferences), I make the point that space at medical conferences should be rented by the sponsor to pharmaceutical companies and a firewall should be then erected between the vendor area and lecture area. This enables conference registrants to understand the distinction between drug marketing and the scientific content of lectures. In other words, information from the companies needs to be clearly labeled as marketing content and treated with some degree of suspicion. Perhaps the same degree of caution should be used when referring to articles in less well known medical journals.