Editorial: Merck publishes a fake journal

Vioxx

The spectre of Vioxx, the blockbuster non-steroidal anti inflammatory drug (NSAID), continues to haunt pharmaceutical giant Merck even five years after the drug was withdrawn from the market due to its cardiovascular risk. The latest scandal relates to the manner in which the company published several volumes of a faked ‘journal’ that closely resembled a peer-reviewed one. The unethical practice came to light recently in the context of a civil suit filed against Merck in Australia. The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine produced by Elsevier, first published in 2003, was essentially a marketing publication masquerading as a medical research journal and was given away free to doctors. The ‘journal’ which closely resembled a genuine one contained only reprinted and summarised articles showing Vioxx in favourable light. With no disclosure of any funding by Merck and produced by Elsevier, a reputed publisher of scientific journals, the company ensured that an average reader never knew of its true nature. An Australian physician who reviewed four issues of the journal had stated in his testimony that only with his knowledge of medical journals and only upon a close inspection he was able to figure out that the publication was not a peer reviewed scientific journal.

Other documents that became available during the civil suit have revealed how it ‘neutralised’ the ‘problem’ physicians by offering them money for research, education, and running of medical schools. The company attempted to ‘discredit’ and intimidate those who refused to be bought over. In another shocking revelation, the British government documents obtained by The Guardian newspaper under the freedom to information legislation showed how Merck’s lobbying resulted in ministers backing down from supporting people who had suffered cardiovascular problems after taking Vioxx. The ministers’ support was in response to the U.K. claimants’ failure to launch a lawsuit against the company as their legal aid application was rejected. The fact that it had indulged in other unethical practices like tampering with the trial results to make the drug appear safe for regulatory approvals, ghost writing papers for journals, and conducting trials to market the drug rather than collect any meaningful scientific information show the lengths to which some pharmaceutical companies will go to sell their products.

Published in The Hindu on May 20, 2009

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