Heuristics gaming

So, bluntly, what Elsevier was up to with this fake-journal business is heuristics gaming.

(Yes, I know, I have a thing about heuristics. Sue me.)

Elsevier was dolling up Big Pharma advertising so as to score high on clinical practitioners’ quick-and-dirty estimates of the reliability of information sources. Gaming their heuristics. Elsevier also claims, of course, that their very brand name is a quality heuristic: “if it’s from Elsevier, it’s good stuff.” If this behavior damages that heuristic—if clinicians no longer think “Elsevier = quality,”—then methinks Elsevier will have some explaining to do to its shareholders.

Gaming heuristics to claim authority for an item that shouldn’t in fact possess any is slimy, fraudulent behavior. It certainly should taint a publisher’s reputation, as well as the reputation of the other journals that publisher handles.

Exactly when and how much Elsevier did or didn’t disguise its brands in this context is a fascinating question. Per Jonathan Rochkind, they didn’t care to soil their Science Direct brand with trumpery advertising. They didn’t mind spreading the poison through generic non-Elsevier-branded properties such as WorldCat, but they wouldn’t let it appear in PubMed (afraid they’d be found out sooner? good question).

According to The Scientist, Elsevier says “this was six years ago; we’re disclosing such things better now.” Are they? Bill Hooker says that the fake imprint that produced the fake journal doesn’t even have a comprehensive list of its other journals. Moreover, Hooker surfaces evidence that some of these fake journals, far from being dealt with six years ago, are still being printed and circulated, paid for by heaven-knows-who.

As a thought-experiment, let’s say that Excerpta Medica did have a comprehensive list of its fake journals. Let’s also say that there’s some fine print in each journal revealing the sponsorship. Problem solved? No. No, damn it, because Elsevier is still trying to game clinicians’ heuristics, and that’s still slimy and fraudulent behavior for a supposedly reputable publisher to engage in.

(Anybody who tells me “But they all do it!” at this point will be received with elevated eyebrows and “Really? Show your work! Who else is engaging in slimy and fraudulent behavior?”)

I find all this genuinely disturbing, quite aside from my professional quarrels with Elsevier. I don’t want the clinicians I go to having their heuristics gamed by Big Pharma waving money at journal-gigolo Elsevier.

So who’s going to call them on this? If not us librarians, who?