New Elsevier Slogan: “It’s All about The Benjamins”

Regular readers of this blog (both of you), and regular listeners of This Week in Virology (all 10,000-plus of you) are by now quite familiar with a fellow named Andrew Wakefield, and the epic and ongoing public health catastrophe he perpetrated. That story began in 1998, when Wakefield and several coauthors published a paper in The Lancet that purported to show a link between autism and vaccination with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) shot. If you don’t know what happened after that, or how utterly that notion has been discredited, take a few minutes to read up on it. I’ll wait.

As we all now know, Wakefield’s original study was not only tiny, unrepresentative, poorly controlled and vastly overclaimed in the media, it was also unethical and fraudulent. Indeed, all of the authors except Wakefield have since repudiated the work, and The Lancet has retracted the paper.

However, some sharp researchers actually foresaw much of this and wrote a commentary to that effect in the very same issue of the journal where Wakefield’s paper appeared. Had that commentary been given the same media exposure as the paper, much of the ensuing disaster could have been avoided. If we’re going to derive any benefit at all from this whole tragedy, then everyone should go and read that commentary. It provides a perfect case study of the importance of critically analyzing clinical data.

Unfortunately, unless you’re at a university that already subscribes to The Lancet, you’ll have to pay a hefty fee to Elsevier, the journal’s publisher. That’s right: this critically important document from one of the most damaging and costly frauds in the history of science is locked in a vault.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve done some work for Elsevier subsidiaries over the years – they previously owned Drug Discovery and Development and Bioscience Technology, two journals for which I write regularly. That said, I’ve sometimes disagreed with the company’s decisions, and this is one of those times.

Thinking it was merely an oversight, one of my TWiV co-hosts, Rich Condit, decided to send a polite request for Elsevier to open this particular paper to the public:

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to request that the 1998 Lancet comment by Chen and DeStefano on the Wakefield autism/MMR vaccine article in the same issue be made open access on your site. The reference for the comment in question is:

Lancet. 1998 Feb 28;351(9103):611-2.
Vaccine adverse events: causal or coincidental?
Chen RT, DeStefano F.

My reasons for the request follow:

I am a co-host on a podcast called “This Week in Virology” (www.twiv.tv). Each week we discuss topics of interest in virology. We also post “science picks of the week”, miscellaneous items that we think may be of interest to our listeners. I would like to use the Chen and DeStefano article as a pick of the week, but it is behind a paywall so that our listeners would not be able to access it, and posting the pdf would be a copyright violation.

This comment essentially debunks the now famous and retracted article by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues linking autism with the MMR vaccine. The comment is of considerable public interest because it quite accurately discredits the Wakefield report and also anticipates the damage it would do, and is published in the same issue of Lancet that contained the Wakefield article. It was apparently essentially ignored and yet was prescient. I would like the public to be able to have free access to this important comment as a lesson in how these things might be avoided in the future.

TWiV has about 7000-10,000 regular listeners so this is a good way to communicate this important message.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Richard Condit
Professor
Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL

Rich got a prompt reply from an autoresponder script, which informed him that all requests regarding rights and permissions had to be filed through a particular web site. He did that, and got a receipt indicating that his request had been submitted, presumably for an actual human to review. A short time later, he got this:

Dear Dr. Richard Condit,

Your order 500611163 has been denied as a result of the following: Permission Denied . You will not be charged for this order and a credit will be issued for any monies submitted in this regard to date.

I can’t even count how many ways this is wrong. The now-retracted Wakefield article is available free of charge, and has been for awhile. It requires signing up for The Lancet’s site, but costs nothing. Meanwhile, Chen and DeStefano’s thorough and prescient analysis of this steaming pile of crap is behind a paywall, and apparently Elsevier has no intention of changing that. The fraud is free, the truth is locked up, and that’s how the publisher wants it.

5 thoughts on “New Elsevier Slogan: “It’s All about The Benjamins”

  1. jesper hogstrom

    Alan,

    I take this opportunity to thank you (and the rest of the twiv-team) for the great work you do in raising public awareness of important scientific questions and issues in general and of course virology-related stuff in particular.

    The wakefield study has been given so much publicity that its findings are probably part of the current common “knowledge”, despite it being counter-factual. I believe it will take time and effort to eliminate that meme and replace it with something more in line with actual knowledge and the current state of science.

    Far too few of the people who have the scientific credentials required to weigh in do as much as you do, which makes your contribution so much more valuable.

    Yes, we can all enlighten our neighbours, but a PhD in virology and 10k listeners is so much more efficient.

    Thus, I obviously think it would be for the better of mankind if the article you mention is made available. Not enough non-believers will read it and reconsider their position, but at least the rest of us can point to it and in that way help stop the proliferation of falsehood.

    All the best,

    –Jesper Hogstrom, Sweden
    Devoted follower of TWIV, TWIP and TWIM

  2. deevybee

    Thanks for telling the world about this.
    V. depressing to see that these requests are not actually handled by human beings – or at least not ones with functioning brains.
    But there is a solution, if you can persuade the authors Chen and DeStefano to take it. I’ve just checked Lancet’s policy on Open Access (http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/search.php) and they allow self-archiving by authors of pre-print or post-print. See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access_%28publishing%29

  3. Claire

    I read the letter again and it appears to me that the letter was not framed in the same way as your blog post. The letter’s main thrust was, I want you to give me the paid article for free to thousands of my listeners. Your blog post’s reason is ” The fraud is free, the truth is locked up”, and

    “Had that commentary been given the same media exposure as the paper, much of the ensuing disaster could have been avoided. If we’re going to derive any benefit at all from this whole tragedy, then everyone should go and read that commentary. It provides a perfect case study of the importance of critically analyzing clinical data.”

    I think the latter approach could be more convincing.

    Also, are there different channels you could try via the Lancet or other contact point? It’s not clear to me whether a human being actually did the “permission denied”.

  4. Kip

    This is likely just another case of the kind of inefficiencies that come with large corporations. No one who could understand and act on your request will ever see it. It was probably handled through India anyway. They likely have no procedure that they were trained on to handle such an unlikely scenario.

    Btw, are you aware of yesterday’s Expression of Concern by Science over the XMRV study?

    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2011/05/31/science.1208542.full.pdf

    1. admin

      You’re probably right. Rich has since gotten ahold of an email address for a real person in Elsevier’s permissions department, and he’s sent them a note spelling out the situation. We’ll see if that gets any better results than the previous attempt.

      As for the Expression of Concern, stay tuned for the next TWiV – and maybe take a look at my latest post here.

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