NYTIMES: Merck Paid for Medical Journal Without Disclosure

Pharmaceutical companies routinely offer doctors reprints of articles from medical journals that are favorable to their products.

But news of a Merck-sponsored publication for doctors in Australia, that has come to light in a personal injury lawsuit there over Vioxx, has raised eyebrows in international medical publishing.

From 2002 through 2005, the Australian affiliate of Merck paid the Australian office of Elsevier, an academic publisher, to publish eight compilations of scientific articles under the title Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, a spokesman for Elsevier said.

The Merck marketing compilation was unusual in that it looked like an independent peer-reviewed medical journal. It even called itself a “journal,” without indicating in any of the issues that Merck had paid for it.

“I believe that many doctors reviewing the journal would likely believe it to be a peer-reviewed medical journal, and rely upon the contents as they would upon other journals they read,” said Robert J. Donovan, an expert witness for the plaintiff, according to a deposition statement.

Mr. Donovan, a professor of social marketing at the Curtin Business School at Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia, said that while some of the articles did appear to be reprinted from actual peer-reviewed publications, the origins of others was unclear.

The Merck-sponsored publication is among the evidence in the Australian trial in which the lead plaintiff in a class action suit alleges, among other things, that the company used misleading and deceptive marketing strategies in promoting Vioxx.

Nine of 29 articles in the second issue of the journal referred positively to Vioxx, and an additional 12 articles referred positively to another Merck drug, Fosamax, a bone treatment, Mr. Donovan said.

An Australian physician, Dr. James V. Bertouch, testified on May 8 that he had been surprised to find his name listed in the first issue without his permission as a member of the journal’s editorial board, and had asked to have his named removed from the publication.

Elsevier issued a statement last week acknowledging that its Australian office had created paid-for compilations “that were made to look like medical journals and lacked the proper disclosures” of their drug company sponsors and calling such practices “unacceptable.” A company spokesman said Elsevier believed that one of the Merck issues was distributed to 20,000 doctors in Australia while other issues went to about 10,000 doctors.

In a statement, Merck said that the articles had been reprinted from peer-reviewed journals. Such journals routinely include articles about research sponsored by companies. Merck also said that it agreed with Elsevier about the importance of appropriate disclosure of financial support. Later issues of the journal carried a disclaimer that the publication primarily contained company-sponsored articles, Merck said.

A 2004 issue of the journal, obtained by a reporter, acknowledged company-sponsored articles. The disclaimer, however, did not name the company.



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