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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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June 25, 2009

What's With Those People at Elsevier, Anyway?

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Posted by Derek

Via a reader comes this article, which takes us to Elsevier's hard-hitting textbook publishing operation. The co-authors of a psychology text for the publisher were recently taken aback to get this e-mail from a publicist at the company:

""Congratulations and thank you for your contribution to Clinical Psychology. Now that the book is published, we need your help to get some 5 star reviews posted to both Amazon and Barnes & Noble to help support and promote it. As you know, these online reviews are extremely persuasive when customers are considering a purchase. For your time, we would like to compensate you with a copy of the book under review as well as a $25 Amazon gift card. If you have colleagues or students who would be willing to post positive reviews, please feel free to forward this e-mail to them to participate. We share the common goal of wanting Clinical Psychology to sell and succeed. The tactics defined above have proven to dramatically increase exposure and boost sales. I hope we can work together to make a strong and profitable impact through our online bookselling channels."

George Tremblay of Antioch U. blew the whistle on this one, which is a good deed. But, cynical person that I am, it makes me wonder how many others on the list might have been ready to pitch in. And given that this has apparently been done before (hey, this is a "proven" strategy), you also have to wonder about five-star reviews of other textbooks published by Elsevier. And other houses, too?

I ask because the company's director of public relations has come out to explain just where this latest tactic went too far - and I have to say, it's a bit further along the line than many people might have thought:

"Encouraging interested parties to post book reviews isn't outside the norm in scholarly publishing, nor is it wrong to offer to nominally compensate people for their time, some of these books are quite large," he said. "But in all instances the request should be unbiased, with no incentives for a positive review, and that's where this particular e-mail went too far."

So when you're encouraging people to write reviews, and offering them some baksheesh for doing so, that's fine. You just don't want to be so gauche as to actually come out and say that you want the reviews to be positive. This does not make Elsevier look good, of course, coming as it does after the reheated-tray-of-friendly-leftovers journal scandal in Australia. (And let's not forget the, um, unusual case of El Naschie and his private Elsevier journal of nonsense). They either are the poor victims of widely scattered unethical promotions staff, or (just perhaps) there's a general culture in that department that allows people to think that these things are acceptable practice.

Comments (13) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side | The Scientific Literature


1. Kieran on June 25, 2009 12:03 PM writes...

Forget the money and the demanded review scores. I can't get over them asking an author to write a review of his own work. I could respect a publisher asking experts in a field for an unbiased review and even giving them a copy to read for free (especially if they have the balls to go to an author of a competing text). If you think your book is that good, get honest endorsements.
The fact that they're asking co-authors and their friends to write reviews that will appear unbiased to the shopper is disturbing. When did academic literature start using shills?

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2. S Silverstein on June 25, 2009 12:26 PM writes...

Not to be (too) rude, but ... I just want to know:

Who interviewed and approved the hiring of the nitwit who authorized this email?

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3. TW Andrews on June 25, 2009 12:40 PM writes...

It's a bit astro-turfy, but as long as the people who are posting are colleagues or students who are familiar enough with the book to form an opinion, I don't see this as problematic. More like standard marketing practice, really.

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4. milkshake on June 25, 2009 1:18 PM writes...

if you don't see a problem with bold-faced marketing and bribery masqueraded as an independent honest report, then you are perfectly fit to join a PR firm.

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5. Anonymous on June 25, 2009 2:02 PM writes...

well anybody that thinks that reviews on, which can be posted essentially anonymously, are 'independent' and 'honest' needs to think a little harder about how the internet/world works.

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6. lukas on June 25, 2009 2:19 PM writes...

There is no such thing as an "independent honest report". Least of all on

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7. SteveM on June 25, 2009 3:12 PM writes...

A small segue on academic publishing in general, especially textbooks. Why are college kids swamped with ridiculous textbook costs for scientific subjects that are totally standardized?

Why can't ACS publish online texts for General Chem, Organic, Physical Chem, etc. for some nominal fee or even for free? The content barely changes from year to year. Get colleges out of the obsolete retail textbook business all together.

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8. Jason on June 26, 2009 5:41 AM writes...

Speaking of El Naschie: My blog El Naschie Watch is entirely devoted to him.

Please note that your earlier article on El Naschie points to an N-Category Cafe thread that John Baez deleted out of fear. The thread is fortunately preserved in its entirety on El Naschie Watch.

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9. Eric Jablow on June 26, 2009 8:11 AM writes...

They could always publish book reviews like these in other Elsevier journals. I suggest the (fake) Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine.

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10. Anonymous on June 26, 2009 10:35 AM writes...

Really makes me believe in the open access approach to scientific publishing. Marketing types are metastasizing into the science. But while pulling profit out of the publication side may help cases like this, probably wont help the worst examples where ghost writers from marketing spin clinical studies and stick some MD's name on it.

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11. Anonymous on June 28, 2009 3:50 AM writes...

Given that Elsevier is an academic publisher, then for credibility alone the books ought to be reviewed *first* by academic and scholarly peers; then by colleagues and students; then by interested readers.

However, I know that seeking positive reviews is rife in the music industry, so the fact that major-league publishers do it too does not surprise me. It does, however, greatly disappoint me.

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12. TW Andrews on June 28, 2009 5:20 PM writes...

if you don't see a problem with bold-faced marketing and bribery masqueraded as an independent honest report, then you are perfectly fit to join a PR firm

Would you consider the user recommendation sections on B&N and Amazon to be "independent honest report?" That seems like a bit of a stretch. It doesn't seem like Elsevier were asking people to lie, and the compensation ($25, and a review copy) hardly seems like it's enough to substantially alter someone's opinion of the book.

It seems to me that it would be a dereliction of a publisher's obligation to an author not to do something like this. It's like the internet version of a book signing, and if you're taking the positive reviews on Amazon as gospel, well, I have a hard time feeling too bad for you.

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13. ExElsevier Emplyee on July 8, 2009 4:23 PM writes...

This is a very typical tactic employed by a desperate marketing staff. Since new management took over the S&T Books org a few years ago, Elsevier is not what it used to be.

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