by Arlen Parsa
Ever since I broke the Belkin astroturfing scandal earlier this year, people periodically send me emails about other companies who are also trying to pay people to write fake positive reviews of their products on sites like Amazon.com (they range from automated computer backup services to coffee machines). I’m always happy to publish these accounts because I think consumer protection and advocacy, especially in the digital age, is very important.
The latest example of this has to be a record in terms of how much the offending company is willing to pay for a fake review: a whopping $25! (A commenter at another website discussing this story jokes, “At least Elsevier was a little more respectful of their potential reviewers - Belkin only paid people 65 cents per review.”) The email I reprint below, forwarded to me by an academic source, was sent by a medical textbook publisher to a list of contributors whose work was featured in the book. The publisher, Elsevier, is according to Wikipedia, “world’s largest publisher of medical and scientific literature.” Here’s what they, quite shamelessly, write:
—– Original Message —–
Dear Clinical Psychology,
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.
We look forward to hearing from you, and once again thank you for your hard work and dedication to this process
On behalf of
525 B Street, Suite 1900
San Diego, CA 92101 USA
*** Confidentiality Statement ***
This e-mail is intended only for the use of the individual or entity to which it is addressed and may contain information that is privileged and confidential. If the reader of this message is not the intended recipient, please notify the sender immediately by replying to this message and then delete it from your system. Any review, dissemination, distribution, or reproduction of this message by unintended recipients is strictly prohibited and may be subject to legal restriction.
Thank you for your cooperation.
It turns out, Elsevier is no stranger to this sort of thing. Also, according to The Scientist magazine, they were allegedly caught publishing a fake medical journal with the sole purpose of basically giving the pharmaceutical corporation Merck quotes to use in their drug commercials:
Merck paid an undisclosed sum to Elsevier to produce several volumes of [Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine], a publication that had the look of a peer-reviewed medical journal, but contained only reprinted or summarized articles—most of which presented data favorable to Merck products—that appeared to act solely as marketing tools with no disclosure of company sponsorship.
Elsevier yesterday issued something of a non-apology after a textbook trade publication also published the above email:
Cindy Minor, marketing manager for science and technology at Elsevier, said that the e-mail did not reflect Elsevier policy. She called the request for five star reviews “a poorly written e-mail” by “an overzealous employee.” Minor said that the concerns over the marketing pitch have been discussed “at the highest levels” in the company and that nobody favors paying for good reviews. The situation “is not being taken lightly,” she said.
“We want unbiased, honest reviews,” she said.
Tom Reller, director of corporate relations for Elsevier, issued a statement distinguishing between what was and was not acceptable under company policy. “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.”
Err, with a statement like that, coupled with the above claim from Elsevier’s employee that “The tactics defined above have proven to dramatically increase exposure and boost sales,” one has to wonder exactly how prevalent these fake reviews are in scholarly publishing. Further, while Mr Reller doesn’t seem to like paying for reviews, he also doesn’t acknowledge understanding that authors reviewing their own work as if they were merely consumers is wrong.
Naturally, the company is blaming this email on the underling who sent it– but in my experience, administrative assistants aren’t the ones who put their butt out on the line, bu a bunch of $25 Amazon gift cards, and go to all this length to contact dozens of people and ask them to write phony reviews so their bosses will profit more. No, the individual who sent the above email was almost certainly ordered to do so by higher-ups who don’t waste their time getting their hands dirty like this.