Merck and Elsevier publish fake peer-reviewed journal

Pharmaceutical giant Merck paid science publishing juggernaut Elsevier to publish a fake peer-reviewed scientific journal, Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine.
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.

Merck Makes Phony Peer-Review Journal (via /.)


  1. Remember: these are the same guys plying mothers with, “YOU don’t want to give your babies CANCER, do you? You don’t want to be a BAD parent, do you? Then you need to get your daughters Gardasil!”

    It’s sick. The company is sick.

  2. Well, that’s good to know. I take Fosamax weekly. It’s good to know that it’s been reviewed in such a stellar process.

  3. It is. The vaccine only covers 4 strains, out of 30+ strains. It does not obviate the need for annual PAP smears. Merck did the hard sell on the state of Texas, made it law (with some reasonable exemptions) that girls had to get it. Turns out they did some pretty nasty lobbying stuff to get there. And now they’re pushing for it younger and younger, with no idea when immunity wanes.

    The other strains will just become more common. It’s not the greatest vaccine, and Merck clearly oversold it.

  4. Despite my cynical view of corporate ethics, I’m still pretty shocked by that.

  5. @Tweeker/Osprey: HPV is pretty well the ONLY source of cervical cancer. So yes, it’s advisable for all girls to get vaccinated before they become sexually active.

    I have no idea what kind of marketing Merck has been using for this in the U.S., but medically it makes sense.

    That all said, the fake journal thing is an especially deplorable subversion of the scientific process.

  6. @3: Osprey, thanks for the follow-up (posted while I was still typing).

    Well, I guess the vaccine is still better than nothing, and the hope is that before the other strains become more prevalent, we would have more comprehensive vaccines.

    As for the younger age of vaccination, I’m not sure about the U.S., but the figures I saw for the U.K. were something like 25% of girls aged 14 testing positive for HPV. Whatever laws/society may think, some teenagers (and preteens) are sexually active and exposed to disease.

    As for duration of immunity, there are always booster shots (and it shouldn’t be hard to do a study of volunteers every few years to track the need for this.)

    Nevertheless, I’d buy the idea that Merck oversold it, and that better vaccines may not be forthcoming as a result.

  7. I’ve been wanting to start an open access chemistry journal for some time now because of the closed, publisher controlled nature of academic publishing.

    I think nothing big pharma does surprises me any more but the publishing industry is steadily reaching the same levels in my estimation. This has given me fresh impetus.

  8. @Insidecircles: When I saw this was Elsevier, that was my reaction, too. They’re kinda the Micro$oft of scientific publishing.

  9. Scientific advancement is already fragile in the hands of magazines, but this is unbelievably bad…
    I am ashamed of being part of the research community, and will stop submitting to Elsevier.

  10. As we’re fond of saying in the library world, “can’t spell evil without Elsevier.”

  11. I used to work in the corporate conference industry and one of our dvisions was pharma – this story was anything but surprising to me. Pharma is not interested in getting you better in the optimal way, it wants to maintain you and leverage maximum profit.

  12. Bah, It’s drummed into us at Uni to use Elsevier and various other journal databases too…

  13. My understanding is that the strains Gardasil doesn’t help with are already fairly common, but do not cause much cancer.

  14. No surprise that it’s Elsevier. They’re the biggest and most evil of all the periodical companies out there. The prices they charge for access are nearly criminal, making it a serious financial commitment for most institutions to subscribe to their services.

  15. Thats the way you do it. Money for nothing and chicks for free. Looking forward to future issues which will highlight the rheumatological benefits of the Total Gym and the Craftmatic Adjustable Bed.

  16. Oh this is so interesting on the publishing side. I just finished a class on university libraries for my MLS degree and one week of discussion was the serials crisis. Elsevier has something like a 40% profit margin thanks to its pricing fixes. And now with budget cuts uni libraries (including the one where I work) are cutting journal subscriptions right and left. Hopefully this means titles in the Directory of Open Access Journals will be getting a lot more hits and prominence.

  17. There are more than 200 strains of HPV. Most are harmless, others produce common warts and what-not. A few are active in the genital region and have varying effects including cancer or genital warts.

    A study showed that strains 16 and 18 are responsible for over 70% of all cervical cancer.

    If those can be vaccinated for, then get that vaccine out there and try to save lives!

  18. Merck is the same company behind the Vioxx disaster and has a long history of controversial and questionable practices when it comes to their relationship with research and researchers.

    Elsevier is just a disgrace, as are all the other periodical companies. It is a disgrace that such an important subset of human knowledge is monopolized by these companies for their own profit.

    One of the biggest shocks of being a researcher was discovering that the only source for the data I needed for most of my research was controlled by these companies at exorbitant prices. This makes it hard to do research evenfrom within an institution, such as a university, and almost impossible as an independent researcher.

  19. On the plus side, this journal isn’t indexed by MEDLINE, nor does it has a web presence. Presumably Merck didn’t want this journal to be too high profile or the jig would be up.

    Generally, few people actually read print journals these days — typically, people find articles of interest by searching terms of interest on MEDLINE and downloading the PDFs of the matching papers.

  20. The science may well turn out to be on the side of the vaccine, but when it’s spending money on political lobbying that could have been spent on research, it calls its integrity and motives into question. Slippery slope.

  21. Next up: “Pure Data” magazine, the peer-reviewed journal of Creation Science.

  22. To be honest I think we need to find the real causes for cancer. Everyone points the finger at smoking or some mystery disease but oddly enough nobody ever seems to look at food. Does anyone take the time to look at the food labelling? Because a particular chemical is in our food doesnt mean its safe to eat in mass quantities, any chemicals added will always be tested with the LD50 technique which is fine. But when you are addicted to fast food or ready meals, you’ll be taking far more chemicals than would be recommended (in a similar manner to Mercury in vaccines, corn syrup and fish). The only reason people eat so much junk is because its packed with MSG and the constant advertising that we ‘NEED’ this stuff. Sugar free is packed with Aspartame, our water contains Flouride and even fruit and veg is grown in countries that allow the use of Organophosphates or DDT, despite the fact that such compounds are banned for use within the E.U. it doesnt mean that supermarkets cant purchase from countries that do allow it (afterall if fewer crops are lost to pests, the cheaper they are to purchase because of an abundance, hence the expense in buying organic). Organic food isnt even what you think it is, a percentage of non organic food is allowed to be processed with organic, but because its below a certain percentage (7% off the top of my head, but check that figure!)they are allowed to call it organic.
    All these corporations run our lives, corporations are strictly interesting profits not morals. Its time to stop fuelling them and start looking after ourselves.
    It’s time to stop looking to Government to feed us and keep us warm, we need to go out and grow our own food again.

  23. This is not new at all.
    This has been happening for looong time, and so far, nobody seems to care a lot. There is a Journal published by Oxford that is supposedly Peer Reviewed, but it does not seems to be.

    The Journal is “Evidence Based Complement Alternative Medicine”, and publish such crap as the bogus effect of pyramidal housing on mice. Besides that, they published papers of a local quack man that uses people in TV ads claiming they have cured from Cancer to diabetes. Some of these people have been appearing in TV long after they are dead saying how well they feel. This murderer has been publishing in this journal, and eerily, some of his papers (including groundbreaking research) are received one day, accepted the next day. What kind of Peer Review is that? Now the fucker claims that his research is “accepted by Oxford” on TV and newspaper ads. Local skeptics have no money or time to counter all these claims, we do what we can, but, meanwhile, people are still been swindled and are still dying thanks to this bastard, and peer review is being used to cheat and make profit form the desperate in the most vile ways.

    You do not have to trust me. Go by yourself and check on Pubmed (

    Look for

    “Evid Based Complement Alternat Med”[Journal]

    And you will see all the crap.

    I wrote about this two years ago ( I even gave a presentation on SciFoo 07 about it, along James Randi (But I am a terrible public speaker), but no one seemed to care by then. Now, once people are paying attention to this awful Merck-Elsevier shit, maybe we can get some attention to this well-poisoning by Oxford Journals and its sCAM.

    If you care about science, integrity, and peer review, would you please al least read a bit more about this? I think it is important to debug our databases before these things happen again.

  24. Osprey101, I’m not connected with Merck, but I am an immunologist and so I have to respond to your comments. Gardasil is one of the most efficacious vaccines ever produced. True, it only protects against 4 types of HPV (not strains) but these types together account for more than 70% of cervical cancers and 90% of genital warts. The hexavalent vaccine is now being tested, which includes two more common types. The notion that the other types will simply become more common is a facile argument and utterly wrong. There are inherent differences in the virus subtypes that make them more or less likely to cause cancer or warts, though these differences are not yet well understood. Types 6 and 11 are very common, yet are not heavily associated with the development of cervical cancer. The clinical results are also remarkable. The trials achieved essentially 100% protection against all 4 HPV types in the vaccine in well controlled populations of girls with no prior viral exposure. In more realistic populations in the later rounds of the trials efficacy was still well over 90%, typically 95% or so. This is prevention of infection, not just disease. The vaccine works remarkably well and we can only expect it to work better as more strains are added to the formulation. Furthermore, yes, women are still advised to get PAP smears after vaccination. The idea that therefore its a waste is foolish. PAP smears are not perfect. Disease is often caught late, and the remedies for abnormal cervical cytology include surgically excising what can be large portions of the cervix. This procedure can cause severe scarring that can affect the woman’s ability to give birth without a C-section, can prevent conception via normal intercourse, and scarring can prevent accurate evaluation of future abnormal cervical growths. This is serious business. A young woman could have one sexual partner her entire life and he could give her the HPV that gives her cancer and kills or disfigures her. For this reason it makes sense to vaccinate men as well. Australia is already doing this, and it makes a lot of sense. I’m not telling you what’s right to do for the young women in your life, but be better informed.

  25. @26> And I used to work in vaccine R&D.

    It’s pretty simple: the vaccine was grossly oversold, and is still marketed on TV towards parents with the “you’re a bad mommy if your kid doesn’t get this vaccine” attitude when it doesn’t obviate the need for screening. So, of course, sexually active kids will keep doing what they’re doing, and some of them will think they’re protected by the vaccine, and don’t need screening.

    As for “The notion that the other types will simply become more common is a facile argument and utterly wrong,” it demonstrates a grave lack of understanding of evolution and population dynamics. If you vaccinate for several strains and leave the remainder unchecked, that does not imply they will be controlled. To the contrary: the behavior that spreads them continues unfettered (and possibly worsened by perceived immunity).

    Merck knows this, and they will simply release a new vaccine that works against the new strains that fill the niche. So they get to sell the vaccine to the susceptible group once again.

    In all likelihood, it’ll prevent a considerable number of cancers, yes- the vast majority of which would be picked up and treated correctly if PAP smears were performed annually as they’re supposed to be. But the manner in which the vaccine was marketed was just atrocious. Sales of their original product is starting to wane, so I expect there will be a new vaccine before too long- one that covers other strains, requiring re-vaccination of their target demographic.

  26. Osprey, thanks for impugning my understanding of evolution, it was appreciated. I was not implying that the remaining strains of HPV would be controlled, merely that if they do not induce cervical neoplasia now they will continue to fail to do so. We also need to separately consider differing rates of infection and differing risks for causing cervical cancer. Not all of the roughly 100 types are equally capable of inducing cancer. In fact, most are innocuous in this regard. Additionally, the types left out of the vaccine may not become any more common than they are now (though any that cause cancer would become more common causes of remaining incidences of cervical cancer) The reasons for the relative prevalence of the different types are complex and often inherent to the particular strains due to particulars regarding replication, latency, strategies for immune evasion and so forth. HPV x and HPV y are not really in direct competition with each other if neither quickly kills its host or otherwise prevents subsequent infection with additional types. Infection with multiples types is possible and common. I still contend that you assume that there are many remaining HPV subtypes that are equally capable of causing cervical neoplasia. This may be true or may not be. My bet is that it isn’t. If I am right, then for new viral types to become common that induce neoplasia there would have to be some trait in these new types that gives them an advantage in transmission or replication or immune evasion compared to HPV strains that do not cause cancer. I am skeptical that this is true. In any case, I have less of a problem with your characterization of Merck’s marketing, but that’s not really my primary concern. Does not giving your daughter Gardasil make you a bad parent? Probably not. However, discounting the actual considerable efficacy of the vaccine because you don’t like the marketing is silly. As for annual PAP smears, again, treatment for an abnormal one can be no fun. One year is plenty of time to go from no abnormal growth to enough to warrant surgical excision. Preventing abnormal PAP smears is at least as important as detecting them. Furthermore, for at risk populations, particularly in the third world but also in this and other industrialized countries, annual screening is not a feasible proposition, for reasons of economics, access, and education. If the vaccine decreases risk for these populations, in my mind it’s worth it. In the end you may be right and the vaccine may just allow the emergence of different neoplastic HPV types, though I am dubious of this reasoning. But please, don’t presuppose the end result because the company strikes you as smarmy. Finally, the increased promiscuity argument strikes me as particularly bogus. I doubt many people hold off on having sex or having unprotected sex because of the threat of HPV or cervical cancer. If you can find a way to prevent people from having unprotected sex with multiple partners then more power to you and have at it. It has happened for millennia and will continue to happen. Gardasil won’t change the fact that sex and promiscuity are here to stay.

  27. What’s funny is, the reason (excuse) Elsevier gives for their outlandish pricing for library subscriptions is that your paying for quality.

  28. Interestingly, this title is also absent from Science Direct, Elsevier’s subscription website for full-text access to their journals. At some level, this is an admission that they themselves don’t consider this a “real” journal.

    Of course peer review is critical in ensuring that researchers aren’t drowned in huge amounts marginal findings as the rest of the internet already is. The problem is that for most people “peer review” is synonymous with “is indexed in ISI’s Web of Science.”

  29. Someone claims to be an immunologist, not connected with Merck, and ok’s Gardasil… but then doesn’t sign the comment… stays anonymous? If you were a real scientist, wouldn’t you sign your name so we can verify what you say? You could be a Merck shill for all we know.

  30. #34, I posted comments 26 and 29. I’m not going to put my personal information up so you can look me up. I’m not particularly interested in getting into nasty email exchanges. Would you? I’ve written nothing that isn’t independently verifiable. I work at the University of Virginia in the Carter Immunology Center. In any case, I could sign whatever I wanted. You’d never be convinced I’m not a shill.

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