An ongoing class-action trial against Merck & Co. has included claims of a series of controversial marketing techniques that have roiled the international science community -- including the creation of phony medical journals full of previously published studies favorable to Merck's drugs.
The trial in Australia, one of many held worldwide over Merck's recalled drug Vioxx, has opened what plaintiffs call a trove of internal material from the company related to how it promoted the blockbuster arthritis drug that, before its recall in 2004, generated more than $2 billion in sales a year.
Vioxx has been linked to many thousands of strokes and heart attacks including, plaintiffs claim, those of some 1,000 Australians, according to court documents. The plaintiffs in the case have presented evidence revealing a range of sales tactics, from a bizarre motivational Vioxx music video for the sales staff set to the melody of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" to an internal Merck list of physicians with "anti-Merck" medical views to be "neutralized."
But the news that the renowned scientific publisher Elsevier produced Merck-sponsored publications designed to look like independent scientific journals, with names such as "The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine," has led to some of the most far-reaching professional fallout from the trial. Elsevier disclosed six other phony "Australasian Journals" last week.
Scientific journals are supposed to be doctors' independent, non-biased source of the latest information about diseases and drugs. Both journals and drug companies such as Merck publically agree to follow international ethics committees' guidelines to keep the information in journals unbiased.
Just last April, the elite Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial calling for universal reform in drug company collaborations with scientists, in light of evidence admitted in similar Vioxx class action lawsuits. The authors claimed that the New Jersey-based drug company "manipulated" vital safety details about Vioxx before submitting articles for peer review and paid doctors to act as "ghostwriters" for articles produced mostly by Merck employees.
But this case is the first to allege that a drug maker has tried to co-opt the peer reviewed medical journal process by creating their own journals.
Some of the doctors listed as honorary board members for The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine have said they never agreed to be part of the so-called journal and were never given any articles to review. The Scientist magazine has obtained two of the phony journals here, and here.
"I saw a copy of it years ago, somewhere, and I saw my name on it," said Dr. Ego Seeman, professor of medicine at the University of Melbourne at Austin Health. "The pure fact that my name was on it without me being contacted, invited or involved was very upsetting."
Seeman said he twice called the editor listed on the publication to get his name off of the journal, and he called to warn one of his colleagues he saw on the list of honorary editorial board members: Dr. Philip Sambrook, who is the president of the Australian and New Zealand Bone and Mineral Society.
"I was never invited to be on the advisory committee. It was never made known to me directly that I was on it. I was never consulted about the scientific content or its validity," said Seeman. "They just put my name on it, boom."