In late April, when the Scientist broke the “Merck/Elsevier fake journal” story, my initial reaction was cynical surprise that this story was getting so much attention.
Honestly, we see “fake” (i.e. sponsored) journals and “fake” (i.e. ghostwritten) articles all the time. Every week.
And that’s not even mentioning the articles that are “merely” subject to gigantic conflicts of interest (disclosed or undisclosed). This is so prevalent that I can’t even really bring myself to call this literature “fake” (without disclaimer quotation marks) because it’s out there, every day, not limited to one publisher/imprint or one (or six) journal(s), or one drug company.
In any given sub-field, it’s rarely that difficult to know which journals are “sponsored” by parties with vested interests, and which take an approach which is more classically considered to be “scholarly.”
So when Exerpta Medica claims, on their website:
“Does EM publish fake journals?
No. EM currently publishes scientific journals
Does EM publish sponsored journals?
Yes, one currently – Insulin”
They have a point. Is Insulin more egregious than many other sponsored journals out there? Perhaps, but perhaps it’s better, since at least now they are being transparent about the sponsorship.
I mean, anyone who knows much of anything about medical publishing will recognize Excerpta Medica for a propaganda machine. But they don’t really try to hide it (although parent company Elsevier cannot necessarily claim the same), stating right on their homepage:
“Excerpta Medica is a strategic medical communications agency. We partner with our clients in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries to educate the global health care community and enable them to make well informed decisions regarding treatment options.”
The role of librarians
Back to the “Elseveier fake journal” story, though…
When I looked at the scanned PDFs (here and here) of issues of the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, posted online by the Scientist, the question I asked myself, as a health librarian, was:
Would I know, just by looking at this journal, that it was not “real”?
I felt relieved to be able to say “yes,” despite the lack of disclosures of a number of conflicts of interest, largely because of the “Honorary Editorial Board” listed in the front matter of the journal. Like every other librarian not at the State Library of New South Wales, I would never have subscribed to this virtually unheard-of journal that didn’t even have a real editorial board.
However, assuming I wouldn’t have this journal in my collection, it’s entirely possible that my researchers would request an article via ILL. Deprived of it’s context – as so much information is these days, from music tracks without album packaging to articles without journal front matter – would I have flagged one of these articles as “fake” and warned the patron who ordered it? Honestly, I would probably have passed it along without a thought to the matter.
This thought has been nagging at me all summer.
No, it’s not always a librarian’s job to give a critical appraisal of the info s/he’s passing along to researchers. When it is appropriate, however, we should be careful to do a good job. And in light of raised public awareness of “fake”/unethical medical publishing, perhaps this very type of critical appraisal is something we should be marketing.
Fortunately the CMAJ just put out a nice little article based on interviews with several awesome Canadian health librarians, which highlights several things for all of us to keep in mind when assessing journals. It’s short; go read it. (ETA citation now that it’s no longer an “early release”: Collier, R. Medical journal or marketing device? CMAJ September 1, 2009 181:E83-E84; doi:10.1503/cmaj.091326.)
If you can’t even spare the time to read a short article on the topic, here’s my list of things they identify as red flags for possible “fakeness” in journals:
Things you don’t need the journal in hand to assess:
- Not being indexed, anywhere
- Not having a journal website
- Not having an editorial board
- Not having submission instructions for authors
- Not having an ISSN
- Not having an impact factor (<- I don’t really agree with this one, particularly if you’re talking about non-US content, as many of our “real” Canadian journals are not ISI-indexed)
Things you can assess with a look at an article/journal:
- Are the researchers prominent people (<- I also quibble with this one, as ghostwriting often uses prominent individuals as “authors”)
- Do the same authors appear too frequently (how frequently is too much depends a bit on discipline, but it can get ridiculous)
- Are the article citations largely to the same journal, or to obscure websites
I think these items are a great beginning for a pamphlet or something to warn/educate researchers about “fake” journals…and maybe to market the skills of health librarians in cutting through the chaff of sponsored scientific publications to the actual scholarly kernels in the literature.
Anything else you would add to the above lists?