Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Selling out a grand old name

The science blogosphere is buzzing with shock horror disgust about the discovery that publisher Elsevier published a half dozen fake journals. These purported to be genuine, peer-reviewed scholarly journals but were in fact prepared at the behest of drug house Merck as pure propaganda. Found out, Elsevier is said to be conducting an “internal review” of its publishing practices.

Thirty years ago I was an acquisitions editor at a prominent sci-tech-medical (STM) publisher with many journals. This publisher created many of its journals -- which meant it was the copyright holder, and owned the journal name -- and then would look for scholarly societies to adopt that journal.

One key reason for creating, publishing, or owning a journal, especially a multidisciplinary journal, especially one sponsored by a scholarly society, is the calculation of how many products could be advertised to how many markets in its pages. Anything relating to pharmacology automatically has some success because all drug companies are ready to put money into journals. "Journal" implies unbiased peer review.

This was back in the early days of targeted marketing. I created mailing lists of product managers of specific products at drug houses. If I had a peer-reviewed journal article on (for instance) calcium channel blockers, I'd peddle reprints to calcium channel blocker product managers; if their product was mentioned favorably in the article, the company might buy 10, 20, 30, thousand reprints of that article. Income went straight to the bottom line.

We were approached by a pharma company asking us to gather a group of experts for a two-day discussion of X disease. Pharma told us that any fair discussion of preferred treatment for X would automatically feature drug Y, on which it held the patent. After the gathering, we could use the recommended authors to put together a book on the subject, which would sell competitively in the open textbook market but which that Pharma could also buy and give to leaders in that treatment area.

It was win-win for us in other ways. We now had friendly relationships with a dozen leaders in disease X, which had not previously been a house strength. What did the specialists get out of it? They were flown first-class to New York, put up at the Waldorf-Astoria for three nights, ate at terrific restaurants, and met other world-famous specialists. Of course they liked us, and it didn't bother any of them that Pharma underwrote it all.

But consider the ambiguities I describe here. The specialists were specialists because they were knowledgeable. The discussion was guided only in that it focused on treatment of disease X. I did some preliminary research and found that the Pharma was right: any discussion of effective treatment of X necessarily promoted drug Y. And no up-to-date text existed in the field. I (and our company's owners) felt that a clear line existed between what we were doing and having our name -- and integrity -- be bought by Pharma, and that we were safely on the clean side of the line. If the project had not been underwritten by Pharma it wouldn't have happened, and it was a necessary project with a legitimate market.

This is not, of course, what's being alleged about Elsevier. The allegation about Elsevier is that the "journals" were fake, existing only to be Merck giveaways. Well, thirty years have come and gone, and this particular propaganda style has burgeoned and at last been found out. Pharma and leading doctors have been implicated in shading or concealing many difficult truths about treatments and medications. In fact, if you follow the links above, you'll read that the truth about the Elsevier/Merck product came out because of an Australian court case.

Medical consumers (that's you there, with the prescription bottle in your hand, and me) have lost faith in doctors as well as the FDA. Some members of Congress and the Senate are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Pharma. It doesn’t much help to be an educated consumer, because if your education is tainted it might as well not exist.

Why do I say "selling out a grand old name"? Because for a long time there was something of a class system in STM publishing. STM houses whose founders were still alive were the new kids on the block, and there was a little bit of snobbery about them. On the one hand, they tried harder. On the other hand, trying hard might mean they were ethical sellouts.

But, Elsevier! Elsevier was founded in 1880. It took its name from the House of Elzevir, a publishing family during the three preceding centuries. Elsevier did not have a reputation to make, Elsevier was ... Elsevier. Having followed personnel moves in STM publishing for a couple decades, I would like to know who and how many people inside Elsevier were implicated in this ... and I would like to know whether anyone, anyone at all, tried to change some minds. I'm also curious as whether anyone who might have tried to change minds is still inside Elsevier or did management find a way to get rid of them.

"Internal review"? C'mon. This was deliberate management policy, set at the highest levels, with an eye to the bottom line ONLY and in the belief that the hoax wouldn't be found out.

1 comment:

prairie mary said...

Thanks, Diggitt. It's always important to have responsible witnesses from the inside as well as accusers from the outside. Clearly, this is not just a "pharma" problem but too close to the way ALL our systems operate.

Prairie Mary