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Sponsored titles raise impartiality issue

Elsevier's Excerpta Medica has revealed that between 2000 and 2005 its imprint in Australia published six industry-sponsored 'journals'

Elsevier's Excerpta Medica has revealed that between 2000 and 2005 its imprint in Australia published six industry-sponsored 'journals', which critics say gave the impression that they were peer-reviewed publications.

The allegations were first reported by The Australian newspaper, which also reported allegations that Merck recruited scientists and doctors to put their names to Merck's own research, in one of the publications, The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine. The publication is said to have contained only reprints of articles, most of them sympathetic towards Merck products, in a format with marked similarities to an independent, peer-reviewed journal, and without mention of the pharma giant's involvement.

In testimony at a civil suit currently being heard in Melbourne, Australian doctor George Jelinek has revealed that four of the 21 articles in one issue of The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine referred to Fosamax and that there were nine references to Vioxx and 12 to Fosamax in another issue containing 29 articles.

Excerpta Medica, a division of Elsevier, has not revealed which pharmaceutical companies paid for the other five publications. However, the CEO of its Health Sciences division in the US, Michael Hansen has admitted that during this five-year period Elsevier's Australian office published "a series of sponsored article compilation publications on behalf of pharma clients that were made to look like journals and lacked the proper disclosures."

Hansen added, "This was an unacceptable practice, and we regret that it took place. I have affirmed our business practices as they relate to what defines a journal and the proper use of disclosure language with our employees to ensure this does not happen again." He also said that the individuals involved no longer worked for the company.

In an opinion piece posted in the New Scientist online, Professor Sheldon Krimsky from the Department of Public Health and Family Medicine at Tufts University, Massachusetts also questioned the practice, saying that in the instance of The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, which was funded by the Australian affiliate of the global giant Merck, the publication, unlike "normal journals", was not open for submissions, nor was there disclosure that it was "funded and controlled" by Merck. (The publication went to 20,000 doctors between 2003 and 2005.)

Prof Krimsky argues that "the blurring of the boundaries between independently refereed publications and advertorials is unacceptable. The production of drugs and the production of reliable knowledge about their safety and use must be kept separate".

In response to PMLiVE's request for a statement, Merck in Australia have said: "Merck agrees with Elsevier about the importance of appropriate disclosure of financial support, and we remain committed to providing journals with the information that permits such disclosures to be made."

9th June 2009

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