UD‘s friend Jonathan Leo has a new article out about the pharma-sponsored ghostwriting of seemingly neutral scientific articles. It’s a model of lucidity, first defining “ghostwriting,” then clarifying all the ways in which it’s a deceptive and destructive practice, and finally proposing new rules for the submission of medical research papers.

The article appears in a subscription-only journal; but here are some excepts.

Transparent and honest authorship would seem to be a bare minimum standard for professors publishing medical research.

Indeed, imagine how your colleagues in any other field would respond if they found out that you didn’t write the articles listed under your name on your cv… That the articles were in fact written by a ghostwriting firm being paid by a corporation – the way, for instance, the makers of Paxil are accused of paying a firm $120,000 to ghostwrite a book representing itself as objective but in fact constituting an extended advertisement for Paxil. “Ghostwriting,” Leo points out, “is performed by writers who have undisclosed conflict-of-interest and are paid well by pharmaceutical companies to ensure that the manuscripts contain the chosen marketing messages.” Only in the American medical school would discovering this deception occasion no response.

While the average reader likely interprets ‘editorial assistance’ as help with grammar or improvements to the overall readability of the article, in reality such ‘assistants’ make major contributions to papers, and would commonsensically be considered as co-authors.

It’s common in corporate ghostwritten articles not to mention the ghostwriter(s) at all, or to hide a thank you in a small note at the end of the piece. And, as Leo points out, it’s just as common to characterize their contribution as purely ‘editorial assistance,’ when it’s often far more substantive than that.

A few journals have instituted ghostwriting-resistant policies, among them Neurology:

[Its editors] require that any paid medical writer be included in the author byline accompanied by full disclosure.

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4 Responses to “And speaking of industry-compromised medical school professors…”

  1. adam Says:

    Your link to the journal allowed me to download the article as a pdf just now. Go for it, folks!

  2. Adam Jacobs Says:

    Oh dear. That article is not very well researched, is it? They mention the European Medical Writers Association (EMWA) as sanctioning the practice of thanking writers for “editorial assistance”. I take it they haven’t actually read EMWA’s guidelines on the subject, since they have totally misrepresented EMWA’s position, and also fail to cite EMWA’s guidelines in their references list.

    Here’s what the EMWA guidelines actually say about “editorial assistance”:

    “Vague acknowledgements of the medical writer’s role, such as ‘providing editorial assistance’ should be avoided as they are open to a wide variety of interpretations.”

    Anyone who wants to read EMWA’s guidelines can find them here:
    http://www.emwa.org/Mum/EMWAguidelines.pdf

    Leo et al also use a rather idiosyncratic definition of ghostwriting. Most people would consider a ghostwriter to be someone who is not acknowledged, not someone whose role is transparently declared. Whether medical writers should be listed as authors is a legitimate matter for debate, but the debate is not helped by writing such an emotive and badly researched article.

    (Conflict of interest declaration: I was one of the authors of EMWA’s guidelines)

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Adam: Thank you for that comment. I’m forwarding it to Leo for a response.

    UD

  4. University Diaries » Ghost Counter Ghost Says:

    […] reader writes, in response to Jonathan Leo’s essay about ghostwriting (go here for a link to the original essay): Oh dear. That article is not very well researched, is it? They […]

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