Merck Creates Fake Academic Medical Journal

May 04, 2009

merck-logoIn early April 2009 we heard that there had been some testimony at an Australian Vioxx personal injury trial about a “medical journal” which Merck had created and distributed to doctors in Australia apparently to tout the benefits of its (now recalled) blockbuster drug Vioxx.  Now an April 30, 2009 article, “Merck publishes fake journal”, published online by The Scientist (free site registration required), gives us some additional information about what Merck was doing in Australia back in 2003:

Merck paid an undisclosed sum to Elsevier to produce several volumes of [Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine,] a publication that had the look of a peer-reviewed medical journal, but contained only reprinted or summarized articles–most of which presented data favorable to Merck products–that appeared to act solely as marketing tools with no disclosure of company sponsorship.

“I've seen no shortage of creativity emanating from the marketing departments of drug companies,” Peter Lurie, deputy director of the public health research group at the consumer advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen, said, after reviewing two issues of the publication obtained by The Scientist. “But even for someone as jaded as me, this is a new wrinkle.”

According to this article by Bob Grant, The Scientist obtained two issues of the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, Volume 2, Issues 1 and 2, both dated 2003.  Those issues were reviewed by Public Citizen's Peter Lurie, and the article some comments by Mr. Lurie about his review:

“I've never seen anything quite like this,” he said. “Reviews are usually swimming in references.” For example, one article on osteoporosis labeled above the title as a “meta-analysis” cites two references — one itself a meta-analysis. “To the jaundiced eye, [the journal] might be detected for what it is: marketing,” he said. “Many doctors would fail to identify that and might be influenced by what they read.”

This April 30 article also draws upon testimony given at the trial of the civil suit filed by Graeme Peterson — who suffered a heart attack in 2003 while on Vioxx — against Merck and its Australian subsidiary, Merck, Sharp & Dohme Australia (MSDA):

In testimony provided at the trial last week, which was obtained by The Scientist, George Jelinek, an Australian physician and long-time member of the World Association of Medical Editors, reviewed four issues of the journal that were published from 2003-2004. An “average reader” (presumably a doctor) could easily mistake the publication for a “genuine” peer reviewed medical journal, he said in his testimony. “Only close inspection of the journals, along with knowledge of medical journals and publishing conventions, enabled me to determine that the Journal was not, in fact, a peer reviewed medical journal, but instead a marketing publication for MSD[A].”

He also stated that four of the 21 articles featured in the first issue he reviewed referred to Fosamax. In the second issue, nine of the 29 articles related to Vioxx, and another 12 to Fosamax. All of these articles presented positive conclusions regarding the MSDA drugs. “I can understand why a pharmaceutical company would collect a number of research papers with results favourable to their products and make these available to doctors,” Jelinek said at the trial. “This is straightforward marketing.”

As mentioned above, there was no disclosure of Merck's funding found anywhere in the two issues of the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine obtained by The Scientist.  But reporter Bob Grant established that this “journal” was, in fact, paid for by Merck:

Elsevier acknowledged that Merck had sponsored the publication, but did not disclose the amount the drug company paid. In a statement emailed to The Scientist, Elsevier said that the company “does not today consider a compilation of reprinted articles a ‘Journal'.”

“Elsevier acknowledges the concern that the journals in question didn't have the appropriate disclosures,” the statement continued. “It is worth noting that project in question was produced 6 years ago and disclosure protocols have evolved since 2003. Elsevier's current disclosure policies meet the rigor and requirements of the current publishing environment.”

Mr. Grant's article also includes statements by a spokesman for Merck's Australian subsidiary, MSDA, as well as a rheumatologist in Australia who was one of the members of a “Honorary Editorial Board” for this Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine journal.

Last but not least:  Mr. Grant's article — “Merck publishes fake journal” (free site registration required) — provides links for you to view PDFs of the two issues of Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine from 2003 which were obtained by The Scientist.