Posted on Sun, Jul. 26, 2009Of course, in addition to the violation of accepted practices of authorship, such as specified by NIH and the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, among others, such lucky authors get to "count" such papers in their academic portfolios, presumably also in violation of their own institutional policies and guidelines for fair attribution and intellectual honesty, e.g., here. Ghostwriting may also skew the tenure process, providing advantages to the unscrupulous academic over the ethical scientist or scholar. (One wonders about the true percentage of the massive number of papers claimed by some medical academics actually written by the putative first author.)
Wyeth told to release documents on ghostwriting
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - A federal judge has ordered the unsealing of thousands of pages of documents pertaining to the ghostwriting practices of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, which is being sued over hormone-replacement drugs.
U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson ordered the papers unsealed Friday at the request of a medical journal and the New York Times. Plaintiffs' attorneys presented the papers earlier at trial to show that Wyeth routinely hired medical-writing firms to ghostwrite articles that appeared in seemingly objective medical journals but included only the name of a scientific researcher as the author.
The ruling came in a case that involves about 8,000 lawsuits that have been combined before Wilson. The lawsuits focus on whether Wyeth hormone-therapy drugs Prempro and Premarin, used to treat symptoms of menopause, have caused breast cancer in some women.
The New Jersey drugmaker, which has major operations in the Philadelphia area, had already turned over the documents, which it says concern about 40 articles in medical journals and other publications, to Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa).
How is evidence based medicine possible if just one drug company has sponsored ghostwritten articles in 40 medical journals and other publications? What is the "total mass" of questionable articles now infecting the literature?
Grassley sought them last year without a subpoena as part of a congressional investigation into drug-industry influence on doctors.
The documents were shown to jurors at trial but have otherwise been unavailable publicly.
Plaintiffs say ghostwriting is when a drug company conjures up the concept for an article that will counteract criticism of a drug or embellish its benefits, hires a professional writing company to draft a manuscript conveying the company's message, retains a physician to sign off as the author, and finds a publisher to unwittingly publish the work.
There are several layers of dishonesty in this activity, including foreknowledge of scientific deception through fraudulent misrepresentation of authorship by the pharma, dishonesty of the physician who "signs off" as first author, and misrepresentation by the pharma, the writing company and the physician about provenance of the article to scientific publishers.
Drug firms disseminate their ghostwritten articles to their sales representatives, who present the articles to physicians as independent proof that the companies' drugs are safe and effective.
Wyeth attorney Stephen Urbanczyk acknowledged that the articles were part of a marketing effort. But he said that they were also fair, balanced, and scientific.
What business does a lawyer have lecturing the public that the articles were a dishonest marketing effort masquerading as legitimate science, but were "fair and scientific?" How does he know? In addition, the "fake but accurate" excuse is getting quite shopworn. Hopefully, Sen. Grassley will approach ending this ghostwriting practice with vigor.
In fact, this raises another issue. I have written that management of pharma by those lacking biomedical bona fides is, by definition, mismanagement. This is a case in point. Wyeth's President, Board Chair and CEO Bernard Poussot lacks biomedical credentials. Harry Truman said "the buck stops here", but a in the case of scientific ghostwriting, CEO's such as Poussot cannot vouch firsthand for the accuracy and fairness of their company's science. He lacks the expertise. The buck does not stop at his desk; he is dependent on scientific underlings in such matters.
This affair is another instantiation of my belief that pharma is best led by those with relevant scientific expertise such as Merck under clinician-scientist Dr. Roy Vagelos. (It is perhaps not coincidental that Merck became a shadow of its former self under non-scientist Raymond Gilmartin.)
Wyeth, the world's No. 12 pharmaceutical company by sales, is being bought this fall by No. 1 drugmaker Pfizer.
How appropriate, as Pfizer is led by the former top lawyer for McDonald's and Boston Chicken, bringing to life my "If you've run McDonald's, you can run anything" metaphor. If a wise investor were to take a bearish position on a stock, this merged company would be an excellent candidate.
Finally, another ghostwriter of sorts recently died, Sandford Dody (1918-2009). Dody anonymously penned best selling autobiographies of actresses Bette Davis and Helen Hayes, among many other notables. Such ghostwriting is essentially victimless, as opposed to its counterpart in the scientific domain. However, Mr. Dody had an astute observation about the practice, even when there was no trail of diseased or dead bodies.
Per the WSJ article "A Ghostwriter Who Struggled to Accept Life in the Shadows":
... Mr. Dody, who died July 4 at the age of 90, found the work spiritually destructive. "After all," he wrote, "how does one become a ghost without dying a little?"
In the case of biomedical ghostwriting, the conspirators all "die a little" in purveying their intellectual dishonesty on a trusting public.
It's too bad some of that same public also dies, and not just a little, as wages of professorial ghostwriting sins.
The acknowledgements are where minor contributions and reviews get placed in an ethically-attributed scientific paper. Anyone who does not understand this, or rationalizes "honorary authorship" or similar workarounds to meaningful attribution does not belong in science.