This may seem very odd to people outside the biosciences area, but in recent years a business has grown up that will write a paper for you, on the basis of data supplied by a pharmaceutical company. The person who actually did the writing will usually not appear as an author at all This practice is known as ghost writing.
It is obvious from the last two posts ( here and here ) that ghost writing of papers has became a major menace to science in the clinical world. The authors may have not even seen all of the data, and some “authors” may even not have seen the paper at all. Awareness of the size of the problem has increased, especially since the paper by Healy & Catell (2003) [ download the pdf ] (see also here ).
“a process of changing scientific authorship that could conceivably culminate in a situation in which the dominant figures in therapeutics actually have comparatively little first-hand research experience and few raw data that they can share with others.”
See also “Declaration of Medical Writing Assistance in International Peer-Reviewed Publications”, Wooley et al ., 2006, JAMA, 296, 932 – 3 [get pdf ], and a Professional Ethics Report published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
I recently had a conversation with a “medical writer” (don’t bother asking me who, I’m not saying). I’m very grateful that he spoke to me, because this is the sort of information that is usually concealed carefully from public view. He was clearly a person with integrity, but nonetheless what he had to say was quite disturbing. Here are some of the things that I learned.
- So called ‘Medical education agencies’ are also marketing agencies. They give expert advice to industry on how to select information from large clinical studies and how to cut and slice it to generate numerous papers. They advise on ‘publication planning’ and on which journals are best to reinforce particular messages that the companies want to convey.
- Medical writers who are acting as ‘ghost writers’ often interact with clients in the industry and don’t necessarily interact with the proposed academic authors. Opportunities to talk to the authors directly can be very limited and discussions are often mediated by a third party.
- Medical writers often do not see evidence that all authors have approved the submitted manuscript. It is perceived that only the primary author has actually approved the manuscript.
- Even if medical writers are aware of their responsibilities concerning ‘good publication practice’ and publication ethics it can be difficult to persuade clients to adopt all of these practices.
- Often medical writers do not see all of the raw data for a study or publication, they can get pre-selected data or just tables and figures for inclusion in the paper. Medical writers who are relatively inexperienced do not realise that this is not ‘best practice and will prepare a paper without requesting further background data.
- Medical writers can be pressurised by clients to include ambiguous data or marketing terms in manuscripts. When medical writers have problems with clients, support from their employers can be limited as clients are paying the bills. In this context, the ‘client’ is the company who produce the drug, not the people who eventually appear as authors.
- Ghost written papers have a number of authors. Often the most important is the primary author; this can be a selected ‘key opinion leader’ whose reputation is relied on by the company for promotion of the product.
In defence he did say that 99% of those working in the pharmaceutical industry are a pretty decent bunch. They understand that the consequences of manipulating data or employing unethical publication practices, if discovered, can be disastrous for the company and their product.
He also said that unethical publication practices occur regularly in purely academic environments. And in that he is, unfortunately, absolutely right. After all, the business of “medical writing” would not exist at all if senior academics were not willing to attach their names to papers that they have not written, and may well not even have seen all of the data.
Still worse, having been caught out doing that, they may be defended by their vice chancellors rather than condemned. Indeed anyone who dares to mention that it is going on is taking the risk of being fired. There is a shocking example here.