Scientific and medical publisher Elsevier has moved to stem the damage from embarrassing revelations over its distribution of a ‘journal’ in Australia that was effectively a paid-for promotional vehicle for Merck & Co.

The publisher says it will issue consistent internal guidelines for use by its pharmaceutical services divisions when producing reprints, article compilations or custom publications on behalf of pharmaceutical companies.

In addition to the Merck-sponsored Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint, Elsevier has now identified eight ‘Journal of’ titles that were published in Australia between 2000 and 2005 but carried advertising from multiple sources and “therefore did not call for additional disclosure”.

However, none of the nine titles were primary research journals and they “should not have been called journals”, the publisher admitted. Another 13 ‘Australasian Journal of’ titles were registered to obtain International Standard Serial Numbers but were never printed.

Single issues of the printed publications were typically distributed to between 2,000 and 10,000 general practitioners in Australia, and Elsevier “is aware of one issue that went to 20,000 (the estimated total number of GPs in Australia)”, it noted.

Within the ‘Australian Journal of’ series, the Australian Journal of Bone and Joint was the only title identified as having a single sponsor without proper disclosure, the publisher pointed out.

Revelations about the Merck-funded journal, which was described in press reports as containing reprinted articles largely favourable to Merck drugs such as Vioxx (rofecoxib) and Fosomax (alendronate), emerged from a Vioxx class action suit against Merck in Australia. They re-ignited debates about the transparency and impartiality of published research data and the relationship between medical journals and the pharmaceutical industry.

In a comment piece published in New Scientist, Sheldon Krimsky, adjunct professor in the Department of Public Health and Family Medicine at Tufts University in Massachusetts, US, suggests the offending journal was “not that far removed from a practice that has been going on for some time without much resistance: the corporate funding of special supplementary issues of journals”.

These publications are “paid for and often overseen by pharmaceutical companies, which are careful to select articles that promote their products”, Krimsky comments. “Because of their stylistic similarity to the parent journal, few readers understand that these supplements do not meet comparable editorial standards”.

Elsevier said it remained confident that the ‘Australasian Journal of’ series was “an isolated practice led by former employees in a local pharmaceutical services division”. While such divisions frequently reprint peer-reviewed articles from Elsevier around the world, they are managed separately from the division that publishes the company’s core collection of primary research journals, it emphasised.

Elsevier expects to complete a review of its sponsorship and disclosure practices for article reprint, compilation and custom publications and to issue guidelines by 30 June.