Farewell To The Medscape Journal: Profits, Losses And A Canary In A Coal Mine

On January 31, 2009 The Medscape Journal will be discontinued.* One can only assume that the journal’s parent company, WebMD, could no longer justify the cost associated with a free, open-access, peer-reviewed medical journal that receives no income from advertisers or sponsors. The Medscape Journal’s budget has been supported by revenue generated from Medscape (the website), and their robust Continuing Medical Education (CME) business.

In these challenging economic times, American companies are taking a cold, hard look at their P and L spreadsheets and nixing the least profitable parts of their businesses. The inevitable “non-profit” casualties present an ethical dilemma. What will become of the noble pursuits that are based upon “doing the right thing” rather than making a profit?

There is no such thing as completely unbiased publishing (humans all have personal agendas – whether conscious or unconscious), though The Medscape Journal came about as close to it as any medical journal ever has. The journal is free to authors and readers, and provides 24-hour online access to both professional and lay viewers from around the globe. There are no advertisements or outside sponsors, peer reviewers work without compensation or specific recognition, and editors are paid a minimal salary (full disclosure: I know this because I was an editor for The Medscape Journal several years ago). CME credit is offered for articles determined to be of special relevance, but no articles are commissioned specifically for the purpose of CME.

The Medscape Journal is a wonderful experiment in high ethics. It espouses, in my opinion, the gold standard principles of medical publishing. Tragically, market forces (or perhaps the lack of perceived value by its own parent company) killed it. So what does this mean for medical publishing? If there is no economic model for “pure science” then are medical journals doomed to go the way of health media – promoting sensational or biased science for profit?

The answer is no. But we must tread very carefully now. The Medscape Journal is our proverbial canary in a publishing coal mine. Its inability to survive on ethics alone speaks to a growing lack of value placed on purity over profitability. We must soberly consider the facts: 1) The Internet creates the illusion that information is “free” and therefore subscription-based publishing platforms will end as viewers simply refuse to pay. 2) Advertisers are becoming more aggressive in their requirements – dynamic microsites and multi-media advertorials have replaced the old billboard approach, often blurring the lines between content and advertisement. 3) Search engines like Google are changing the way that health messages reach the public and scientists alike. The “impact factor” of research often lies in its marketing campaign. Important negative trials are buried under case reports, anecdotes, and news stories with snappier headlines.

So what are scientists to do? I suggest that those of us committed to science-based medicine join together in a united effort to harness new media tools for the public’s benefit. Let’s use social networking applications (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, online communities, etc.) to educate others about science, research, health claims, and potential biases. Let’s not be afraid of marketing scientific integrity – decades have already shown us how effective marketing can be for snake oil. If we don’t raise our collective voices – how will people get good information on the Internet? How will Google searches return highly ranked, sound information rather than sensational headlines?

Farewell to The Medscape Journal – and thank you for nearly a decade of honorable medical publishing. May the rest of us continue the vision, if only on different platforms.

*Although WebMD’s communications department declined to comment on the lay offs, I was able to confirm it via 3 different reliable sources.

Posted in: Announcements, Medical Academia, Science and the Media

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