A new study released today shows only 26 per cent of top American medical centres have a ban on the use of ghostwriters by their researchers.
The study, released today by PLoS Medicine, surveyed 50 top medical centres across the United States, and found that 10 schools ban ghostwriting by name, while another three ban the practice without using the words "ghostwriting" or "ghostwriter."
Medical ghostwriting, the practice of pharmaceutical companies secretly authoring journal articles published under the byline of academic researchers, is a troubling phenomenon because it is dangerous to public health. For example, ghostwritten articles on rofecoxib probably contributed to “…lasting injury and even deaths as a result of prescribers and patients being misinformed about risks”. Study 329, a randomized controlled trial of paroxetine in adolescents, was ghostwritten to claim that paroxetine is “generally well tolerated and effective for major depression in adolescents”, although data made available through legal proceedings show that “Study 329 was negative for efficacy on all 8 protocol specified outcomes and positive for harm”. Even beyond frank misrepresentation of data, commercially driven ghostwritten articles shape the medical literature in subtler but important ways, affecting how health conditions and treatments are perceived by clinicians. The ability of industry to exercise clandestine influence over the peer-reviewed medical literature is thus a serious threat to public health.
In 2009, the Institute of Medicine recommended that US-based academic medical centers enact policies that prohibit ghostwriting by their faculties. However, to date, there has been no systematic assessment of ghostwriting policies at academic medical centers. Since US-based academic medical centers generate biomedical research for a worldwide audience, we chose to conduct the first such investigation on elite US-based academic medical centers.
... When a pharmaceutical salesperson hands a clinician an article reprint, the name of the institution on the front page of the reprint serves as a stamp of approval. The article is not viewed as an advertisement, but as scientific research; the reprint is an effective marketing tool because peer-reviewed journal articles generated in academia are perceived to be the result of unbiased scientific inquiry. Deception regarding authorship prevents a discriminating audience from properly assessing the impact of bias in the published article. Importantly, this deception is impossible without the cooperation of faculty employed by academic medical centers. The practice of ghostwriting explicitly violates the usual norms of academia. We are not aware of any other academic fields where it is acceptable for professors to allow themselves to be listed as authors on research papers they did not write, or to purposefully conceal the contributions of industry coauthors in order to mislead readers.
The authors offer a possible wording for a ban on ghostwriting that they urge medical centres to adopt.
“All listed authors on a publication must meet the authorship criteria set by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. Making minor revisions to a manuscript does not qualify as authorship. Participating in the creation of ghost-authored manuscripts is not permitted. A ghost author is defined as someone who makes substantial contributions to writing a publication but is not listed as an author. All individuals who have made a substantial contribution to the manuscript must be listed as authors. Accurately reporting authorship is essential for maintaining research integrity, and violating any of these rules is considered research misconduct akin to plagiarism or falsification of data.”
No similar survey has been condiucted in Canada.