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Where is the outrage?

There was a tiny bit of hue and cry about the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, back when its shady underpinnings were exposed (early May of this year). Fingers were shaken in the general direction of Merck and Elsevier. We were later told that, OK, yes, Elsevier had actually published six of these “sponsored journals,” all through one division, which was later closed down, but we shouldn’t worry: the people responsible—whom, no, Elsevier wouldn’t name—no longer worked with the company.

Only, actually, we came to find out even later (moving into June, at this point) that there were nine of these journals. Now, maybe I don’t read enough library blogs—and I admit, STEM librarians are surprisingly underrepresented in my blogroll—but the outcry wasn’t exactly deafening. I brought up this whole debacle in a talk to a room full of librarians in late May—after the “six journals” story had broken, but before we knew there were nine—and maybe half of them even knew what I was talking about. The Progressive Librarians Guild had issued a statement (also before my talk), but I didn’t see it get much press, either.

We library types went to SLA Annual and ALA Annual and any number of other conferences this summer, and we blithely let Elsevier wine us and dine us, some out of ignorance (because those of us who knew didn’t speak up loudly enough) and others out of … apathy? fear? who can say?—I’m not proud to admit it, but, even knowing all this, I went to the Spy Museum on their dime and didn’t once mention this whole controversy to any of their representatives. I do not mean to suggest that I think haranguing sales reps is the right route, but, clearly, neither is silence. I feel like I failed in my handling of this issue, and, if that is the case, I’m clearly not alone.

But it was over. Old news. What was I going to do, insist that academic and medical libraries all over the world boycott the largest STEM publisher—and Elsevier is almost three times larger than its nearest competitor in this market—based on one division full of bad eggs they claim to have let go four years ago? By myself, as a new librarian? It was over, I’d missed the boat, I’d screwed up, and, with any luck, Elsevier had learned from the Vioxx mess and truly cleaned up their act. Mostly. (They were trying to bribe their way into good textbook reviews on Barnes & Noble and Amazon. But they quickly stopped.)

Imagine my shock, though, when I saw this little gem (via Slashdot) crossing my RSS reader. “Shady dealings in medical journals?” I thought to myself. “Surely, this can’t be yet another Elsevierian debacle?” But, indeed, it was. This time, instead of Merck shilling Vioxx by means of a fake medical journal, it was ghost writers playing up the benefits of hormone therapy on behalf of Wyeth in 26 articles, all published by Elsevier. Again, this was a few years ago, so maybe it goes under the pass they clearly got for the division creating the nine fake journals? On the other hand, it’s not clear that this set of errors came out of that now-defunct division, is it? This could be an indicator of a systemic problem within Elsevier. And I do not believe it has been adequately addressed.

We could talk about the people hurt by Vioxx and hormone therapy and how the medical process was damaged, here, and what Elsevier’s responsibility might be. I think somebody should. But I don’t know that much about medicine, so I’m going to talk about the scientific record, a little bit. That’s something I do know a thing or two about.

Let’s go back to the Australasian journals. Just looking at the first six anyone found out about, and just looking at Google Scholar for a few minutes, I found that there was a citation trail. Let me show you:


I had no choice but to look at Google Scholar, in finding this out. These journals had all been expunged from Web of Science and other authoritative sources. Which seems to be, if not actively helping Elsevier push this under the rug, at least failing to make clear to researchers and librarians that these are tainted sources. It’s deceptive. There should be a “retracted” flag in Web of Science and Ulrich’s. Scholars, librarians, and scholar-librarians should be pushing—hard—for this.

What my Google Scholar findings really tell me is that there has been damage done to the scientific record—how many of those citations used “facts” from the original sponsored journal is hard to say, but the fact that the citation tree goes so deep is pretty disturbing, nonetheless. We trusted Elsevier, and our patrons continue to trust us. We owe it to them to force Elsevier to earn back that trust. We need to demand—and make sure they deliver—transparency in their operations. But how? Do we threaten a boycott? In these financial times, we have to cut somewhere—perhaps a policy to cut Elsevier titles/bundles before others would not be so very hard to implement. (I realize this has further implications for our patrons. I’m brainstorming, here, not making demands. But do give this some thought before dismissing it outright, eh?) Do we keep them out of our conferences, for the time being? What can we do? Because it’s clear to me that we need to do something, or we will just see more of these stories popping up. We can’t write them off as “old news,” given how recently they came to light, or we’ll see similar “old news” four years from now—and when that happens will we just keep making excuses for Elsevier, because it is convenient?

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One Comment

  1. Anonymous

    of course…there was that whole problem with Elsevier fabricating textbook reviews on Amazon…

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