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Medical Publisher Offers Bribes for Writing Favorable Book Reviews

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Medical Publisher Offers Bribes for Writing Favorable Book Reviews

August 2009

Sidney M. Wolfe, M.D.

We have often wondered about the legitimacy of the Amazon.com reviews of books, especially when they are mostly five-star reviews that appear to have been “planted” to increase the books’ sales on the ecommerce Web site, Amazon.com.

Thus, when a book publisher sends the following e-mail to contributors to a book with the following message, these concerns are significantly heightened:

Now that the book [Clinical Psychology: Assessment, Treatment, and Research] 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.

The e-mail continued:

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.

One of the most surprising things about this was that the attempted bribe did not come from a small publisher whose financial success hinged on the big sales for the book.

Instead, the buyoff offer came from a multi-national company, Elsevier, described as “the world’s largest publisher of medical and scientific literature.” This Amsterdam-based company, founded in 1880, publishes 2,000 journals, and has published 17,000 books.
According to an article about this scam in the British Medical Journal, Elsevier said that “the email did not reflect company policy” and that it had been the “mistake” of an Elsevier employee.

However, in its defense, Elsevier stated that:

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. But in all instances the request should be unbiased, with no incentives for a positive review [such as a 5-star], and that’s where this particular email went too far.

But alas, the attempted bribe backfired. The only review for the new book Clinical Psychology found on the Amazon.com site gave it only one star, not five, explaining the low rating as follows:

“Elsevier publishing’s marketing department offered financial compensation in exchange for 5 star reviews of this book. Please be wary of reviews posted for this book.”

According to Amazon.com, “27 of 27 people found [this] review helpful.”