Academic Publisher Pays Professors For Shill Amazon Reviews

This story is a little old, but was just brought to our attention this weekend. Elsevier, which is sort of the Death Star of academic publishing, was caught offering $25 Amazon gift cards to professors who gave the book five-star reviews on Amazon.

The e-mail, which Elseiver now claims was the work of an employee gone rogue, went out to academics who contributed to a clinical psychology textbook:

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.”

Even without the review payola, this raises the question: how much credibility would you give a review from a contributor to the book, anyway?

Elsevier is “not taking it lightly,” as opposed to “taking it seriously,” which is close enough.

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.

So much for that. The only review for the textbook on Amazon at the moment is a one-star review warning shoppers to be wary of any reviews.

Elsevier Won’t Pay for Praise [Inside Higher Ed] (via Jessamyn)

Comments

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Well, being an academic scientist, I’m not surprised that Elsevier would do something like this. It’s not the worst thing on earth to do this with a book (although deceitful). I find their conduct with academic journals to be even worse. Academic journals should be strictly non-profit.

  2. 1stMarDiv says:

    The only thing more infuriating about this and other examples of review fraud is Amazons complete laissez faire attitude about it. Why not suspend these companies for a set period of time to teach them a lesson?

    • bombhand says:

      @1stMarDiv: That wouldn’t be fair to the people who just need to buy their textbooks.

      Still, the company should see some sort of consequences for it! Something a little less drastic would be called for, perhaps, like removing the star rating and replacing it with a “this item’s user rating is currently under review” or something like that.

    • eddieck says:

      @1stMarDiv: Amazon would lose out. They’ve purchased the inventory – if they removed the item, they wouldn’t be moving that inventory.

    • GreatWhiteNorth says:

      @1stMarDiv: That would not be in compliance with their business model… $$$ on no account interfere with the flow of $$$.

    • jenjen says:

      @1stMarDiv:
      I agree. How is this different from the Belkin debacle where they were paying people via Mechanical Turk to write reviews? Amazon is supposed to not allow sellers to interfere in the reviewing process. But in this case the seller is actually Amazon I guess.

  3. Cameraman says:

    WTF!!! I gave a very nice review for an Elsevier book on Amazon, under my real name, and the only thing I got was an education! What a rip off! I want my $25!

  4. GMFish says:

    Elsevier is “not taking it lightly,” as opposed to “taking it seriously,” which is close enough.

    Is Elsevier taking steps to rectify the situation?

  5. AstroPig7 says:

    The sad part is that Elsevier generally doesn’t need shill reviews. They publish Gray’s Anatomy, for God’s sake! How do you give the standard in anatomical reference a bad review?

    • ThinkerTDM says:

      @AstroPig7: They still need to sell some of their less popular (and probably more expensive) lines. I’m willing to bet that the “salespeople” might be paid a low wage and probably get a bonus when they sell well.

    • sir_eccles says:

      @AstroPig7: I couldn’t get in to Gray’s Anatomy, the characters just pissed me off. I want to get back to the classic era of ER with Dr Ross et al.

    • theodicey says:

      @AstroPig7: Everyone publishes Gray’s anatomy. It’s been in print so long it’s no longer really the standard.

      Elsevier also publishes a bunch of books that sell about one copy a year. Reviews make a big difference to their sales.

  6. Blueskylaw says:

    She called the request for five star reviews “a poorly written e-mail” by “an overzealous employee.”

    And yet the bribe money had to come from somewhere. Unless this employee was paying out of his own pocket, Elsevier was paying for it and knew about it.

    Secret slush fund anyone?

    • Shoelace says:

      @Blueskylaw: And/Or a fat bonus for the ‘overzealous employee’, commensurate with stars?

    • Anonymous says:

      @Blueskylaw:

      Yes, he almost certainly was a intern or new hire in the marketing department. They generally get ‘money’ for marketing purposes, whether it be printing up fliers or making pens or post-it notes with the company logo. Not every single that they do is scrutinized to the exact degree (but maybe they should be….)

  7. Trencher93 says:

    Another “an employee gone rogue”! Won’t some company take the blame for once rather than blaming some low-level flunky? Please? Every time something like this happens, some sucker gets to take the fall. I guess that’s the reward you get for working at a company like this. If something like this blows up, you’re a rogue and walk the plank for them!

  8. ColoradoShark says:

    Employee gone rogue. Let’s all call shenanigans.

    Was this employee going to personally pay for each of the $25 gift certificates out of his/her own pocket? Sounds somewhat beyond unlikely to me.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Elsevier is actually kind of an evil company. They treat their employees terribly and have many morally questionable business practices, like publishing fake journals sponsored by pharma companies that favorably review their drugs. They give all publishers in the STM market a bad name, but fortunately the industry’s biggest customers (institutional acquisitions librarians) usually know what kind of a beast they are dealing with when it comes to Elsevier. I speak from experience.

  10. Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

    It also seems like a dumb business move … most profs don’t pick textbooks based on amazon reviews, and students are buying what they’re told to buy.

    • dragonfire81 says:

      @Eyebrows McGee (now with more baby!): Absolutely, in all my time in college I never bought a single textbook off amazon.

      • Kimaroo - 100% Pure Natural Kitteh says:

        @dragonfire81: I bought most of mine from BN.com.. the prices were actually cheaper than at the college book store, and with free shipping I didn’t even need to go anywhere to pick it up.

      • Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

        @dragonfire81: I bought most of mine off amazon in college … but it didn’t matter what the reviews were, I bought what was on the syllabus!

    • oneandone says:

      @Eyebrows McGee (now with more baby!): That struck me as odd, as well. I’ve never seen a professor consult Amazon when they were considering a textbook. It was always based on working with the author / editor, previous use of the author’s books, or old-fashioned text book sales people coming over and delivering free copies for review.

      Maybe for texts that are not totally academic but can be used in classes (business, sociology, and communications seem to have some of these) Amazon reviews would be useful, but it still seems unlikely.

  11. Poustman says:

    Jobless? Broke? Here’s a New Career Idea!

    Hire yourself out as a professional ‘rogue employee’, putting shady company desires into effect, then taking the fall for a nice fat fee. After all, companies aren’t responsible in any way for those darn rogue employees. And you were just trying to help.

    • Allison Granados says:

      @Poustman: i think the fee should be based on factors like if the media followed you everywhere and whether or not you were put in jail.

  12. I Love New Jersey says:

    This just seems to be more evidence that the higher education system is just a scam.
    So how can I start my own university and start raking in profits?

    • theodicey says:

      @I Love New Jersey: There’s already the University of Phoenix, offering a mediocre for-profit education and collecting government subsidies all over the country.

      Go ahead and start the University of Paramus if you want — just don’t be surprised when the Phoenix people play hardball.

  13. Jason Rose says:

    Hotels are constantly bribing guests over on Tripadvisor.

    CGM, the ‘web 2.0′ is really lining up for the jump over the shark.

  14. Duckula22 says:

    How about a law that turns this into a felony, enough crap already, jeez.

    • aaronw1 says:

      @Duckula22:

      A felony? While I admit the idea of pay for reviews isn’t good at all, but I think that a felony is a little bit much. Doesn’t really do much to help the crowded jail situation.

  15. jenjen says:

    Not to mention the fake journals their Australian arm published in 2005-06 which looked like scholarly journals but were really collections of previously-printed articles sponsored by pharma. Nice. [www.the-scientist.com]