Ghostwritten

by John Quiggin on December 16, 2008

This New York Times article on the (apparently widespread) practice of drug companies drafting and ghostwriting scientific articles favorable to their products, and then arranging for academics to publish the articles under their own names, focuses, reasonably enough, on the potential for such practices to mislead doctors and other readers.

As an academic, though, I was particularly struck by the stress that the drug company Wyeth laid on the fact that the nominal authors of these articles were not being paid and endorsed the contents. In reality, having someone write articles for you amounts to not doing the job for which, as an academic, you are paid and, if the articles are sufficiently numerous and well-placed, promoted. It would be far more ethical (or less unethical) to pay academics for product endorsements, published as commercial advertisements.

Of course, in a world where a $50 billion (or maybe $17 billion, who can tell?) fraud barely makes the front page, and a $100 million rip-off is buried somewhere behind the shipping news, it seems a bit precious to worry about (allegations of) goldbricking academics passing off corporate propaganda as their own work. But at least I can understand how this scam works, as opposed to how a massive Ponzi scheme can be operated for decades under the noses of what are supposed to be the world’s most sophisticated fnancial markets and regulators.

{ 17 comments }

1

Ray 12.16.08 at 7:49 am

I suspect you are mistaking the culture difference between certain laboratory sciences and the humanities. In the humanities, research refers to the actual writing, and to fail to write your own text is extremely dishonest. In the sciences, it is quite common for professors heading laboratories (or other members of large collaborations) to sign their names to projects for which they had responsibility or some contribution, but where they did not personally write a single word of the paper. To fail to mention the person who actually cranked the calculations, or drew the figures, for parts of the paper falls more to the level of a breach of etiquette.

2

dsquared 12.16.08 at 9:32 am

Luckily the economics profession is more or less free of bought & paid for apologia like this. You cannot hope to bribe or twist Chicago school economists.

3

LizardBreath 12.16.08 at 12:51 pm

After all, there’s no occasion to.

4

John Protevi 12.16.08 at 1:04 pm

Depends on how you define “being paid,” doesn’t it? This WSJ article (subscription required) details the use of junkets seminars in luxurious ski lodges, etc., where the scientists listen to company sales pitches and review the data that they then sign off on.

More worrisome to me than this sort of venality is the practice of corporate right of first refusal on publication. In this way they can commission 10 articles, trash the 9 that they don’t like, and publish the 1 that says what they like. I think this means that even if the 1 that is published passes muster for its methodology, statistical analysis, etc., its epistemic import is artificially strengthened through lack of context. Though I think more and more journals are requiring disclosure of such arrangements, I don’t think this disclosure practice is yet universal.

I’m not an expert in this sort of applied epistemology, though, so if I’m off base here, I’d be happy to be corrected.

5

Bill Gardner 12.16.08 at 1:38 pm

In the sciences, it is quite common for professors heading laboratories (or other members of large collaborations) to sign their names to projects for which they had responsibility or some contribution, but where they did not personally write a single word of the paper.

This was accepted practice in academic medicine a generation ago. Now, according to the Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals: Writing and Editing for Biomedical Publication of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, it is necessary, but not sufficient, that your contribution includes “drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content”. That is, some actual writing. I’m sure this norm is still abused, but I hope we have made progress.

6

tom s. 12.16.08 at 1:45 pm

“In reality, having someone write articles for you amounts to not doing the job for which, as an academic, you are paid”

Two words. Graduate students.

7

Bill Gardner 12.16.08 at 1:50 pm

More worrisome to me than this sort of venality is the practice of corporate right of first refusal on publication. In this way they can commission 10 articles, trash the 9 that they don’t like, and publish the 1 that says what they like.

Again, it was once acceptable for drug companies to attach conditions on publication to research funds given to universities. It isn’t acceptable any longer.

The manufacturers get what they want by paying academics to consult. Carrots, not sticks.

8

spence-bob 12.16.08 at 2:27 pm

What bothers me more than the ghostwriting is the question of who actually did the research. Ray points to the practice in the sciences of adding one’s name to a publication simply by virtue of the fact that the research was conducted in that individual’s lab; that’s quite a bit different than accepting results of research conducted by a party with a strong financial interest in the outcome and simply writing your name over them.

9

John Protevi 12.16.08 at 2:45 pm

Bill Gardner, thanks for that clarification.

10

eudoxis 12.16.08 at 3:10 pm

Next, we’ll be reading about how lawyers and ghostwriters for the firms suing Merck and Wyeth, and so forth, are responsible for the articles in the NYT and elsewhere. And, down the line, that all articles we read as news are generated not by reporters but by interested parties who have contacted reporters with articles already written. The whole publishing world is one giant Ponzi scheme.

Ghostwriting and guest authorship are all too common in academic publishing and, naturally, raise concern over the integrity of the underlying research. However, undisclosed authorship, per se, is not the same as reporting of fraudulent data. The suppression or ommission of negative results (as in the case of Vioxx) is a larger threat to the public than the practice of borrowing political support from the scientific and medical community to report true results.

11

Cryptic Ned 12.16.08 at 4:38 pm

This was accepted practice in academic medicine a generation ago. Now, according to the Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals: Writing and Editing for Biomedical Publication of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, it is necessary, but not sufficient, that your contribution includes “drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content”. That is, some actual writing.

No, I don’t think anyone follows that rule. I’d never heard of any rule like that. And I work in this field.

If you contributed significantly to the research, you become an author. Look at any article detailing the results of a clinical trial. You’ll probably see a dozen or two dozen authors, representing a dozen different institutions. These are all the doctors who organized the trials at those institutions, plus a couple statisticians and experimental technicians. There’s never even a clue as to who actually wrote the paper, and that’s considered to be more or less irrelevant. “Author” represents who did the work.

Now, some journals require the submitters to detail which of the authors contributed what to the paper. So it’ll say “JMM, HUY and DXX designed the experiments. DXX, SOS and POS carried out the experiments. BFF performed statistical analysis. JMM and DXX wrote the manuscript.”

12

Watson Aname 12.16.08 at 5:42 pm

Cryptic Ned is right, unless perhaps “revising it critically” means someone sent you a draft via email and you didn’t complain. As noted, some journals want a breakdown of who did what work, but it just isn’t plausible (or desirable) to have everyone involved in the actual writing.

Two words. Graduate students.
In theory this would save a lot of time. In practice, not so much.

13

rm 12.16.08 at 6:08 pm

We humanities scholars are such suckers and rubes.

14

bianca steele 12.16.08 at 6:38 pm

John,
The emphasis by the pharmaceutical company that the doctors were paid by the company is the reverse of the charge often heard that doctors’ opinions are tainted because they were paid. The idea appears to be that because a contractual obligation requires a quid pro quo, consideration must have changed hands in both directions — or perhaps that what they were paid to do must necessarily have been to write in support of the opinions of those by whom they were hired — or perhaps, even, at the very edge of possibility, that to say “money was given” might just as well be to say “opinions were transferred.”
The emphasis by the Senator seems to be associated with the requirements under US law for filing a civil suit. (I’m not a lawyer, so obviously you shouldn’t take my word as legal advice, but this information can after all be found in layperson’s books available at any public library.)

15

bianca steele 12.16.08 at 7:06 pm

Oops, “not being paid.”

Very different meaning if you leave out random words.

16

bianca steele 12.16.08 at 7:06 pm

Oops, “not being paid.”

Very different meaning if you leave out random words.

17

Bill Gardner 12.16.08 at 9:04 pm

I don’t think anyone follows that rule. I’d never heard of any rule like that. And I work in this field.

The Instructions for Authors at JAMA includes a form that that must be signed by authors that includes the following:

“2. (check at least 1 of 2 below)
[ ] drafting of the manuscript
[ ] critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content”

This is, clearly, a restatement of the ICMJE rule.

Similarly, the NEJM‘s current policy statement about who should be an author: “The specific requirements for authorship promulgated by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), which have been adopted by many biomedical journals, are posted on its Web site at http://www.icmje.org… As in the past, our policy is that all persons listed as authors must meet the ICMJE requirements for authorship. “

There’s never even a clue as to who actually wrote the paper, and that’s considered to be more or less irrelevant.

That is the problem that this policy is specifically designed to address.

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