Friday, April 22, 2005

Additional ghostbusting thoughts

The revelation about "ghost writing" and false accreditation in the Journal of General Internal Medicine , a practice apparently for such purposes as "paving the road" for new drugs, was quite concerning to me as a former pharma professional. It also raises several critical questions:

1) Who are the personnel responsible for a program of foisting prewritten papers on to clinicians/scientists for them to "edit" and then claim first-authorship, a tactic that I would view as academic fraud?

2) What were the roles of non-clinical MBA's and marketing execs in such programs and decision making? Creating and implementing projects like this would require a lot of planning and discussion within "business process-centric", hierarchical pharmaceutical companies in my experience. Do such people know the effects such activities could have on science and the public's trust in scientific research? Do they care?

3) What impact does this type of activity have on EBM (Evidence-Based Medicine)? Sue Pelletier of Capsules astutely observes that "... this whole situation really is unbelievable, isn't it? Or at least, it should be. It makes me question the value of evidence-based medicine, if the evidence it is based upon is based on "studies" like this one." I agree.

4) What is the true size of this scandal? How many other potentially misleading, inaccurate or faulty "ghost papers" misaccredited to primary authors are present in the recent medical literature as a result of such initiatives, and could pharmas and other corporate entities be made to reveal this, e.g., under the U.S. Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act or other U.S. or non-U.S. laws and statutes?
On October 15, 1970, the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 became law. Title IX of the Act is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Statute (18 U.S.C. §§ 1961-1968), commonly referred to as the "RICO" statute. The purpose of the RICO statute is "the elimination of the infiltration of organized crime and racketeering into legitimate organizations operating in interstate commerce." S.Rep. No. 617, 91st Cong., 1st Sess. 76 (1969). However, the statute is sufficiently broad to encompass illegal activities relating to any enterprise affecting interstate or foreign commerce.
In addition, as I wrote at "US senator says FDA needs independent safety office" , insights into process flaws, inadequate leadership skillsets, and perhaps even corruption in high-stakes industries can be gleaned by who they won't hire. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that after my layoff from pharma and more than year-long search for a new position (which is back in academic medical informatics), I could not even secure interviews with several "Medical Education Companies."

It's bad enough that the ghostwriting practice occurs, but it's even worse that the papers themselves may not even be of decent quality. I was also disappointed but not surprised to read in the Journal of General Internal Medicine editorial "Scientific Discourse, Corporate Ghostwriting, Journal Policy, and Public Trust" that the article in question on anticoagulants, according to Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, was of low quality:
[This manuscript] consists of collated case reports with little to no assessment of case report quality. It is transparently biased. Controlled trials assessing interactions are only mentioned spottily; the writers seem unaware of many more trials that exist. When trials are mentioned, it is dismissively, as if the case reports showcased were just as credible. The fish oil section is particularly egregious. There is only a single case report that I know of that reports a possible interaction. Two clinical studies specifically designed to test fish oil with warfarin show no interaction, and long-term studies of fish oil show no effect on bleeding parameters. PC-SPES didn't interact with warfarin. It was ADULTERATED with warfarin. I could go on with other errors and misleading statements .

As a medical informaticist and the former director of Merck's scientific research libraries where we prided ourselves on the proven ability to perform comprehensive searches of the world's scientific literature (even the very obscure) for our scientists, I likely would not have missed existing clinical trials in the literature. Exactly what kind of people, and with what credentials, are the MEC's hiring?

Finally, it didn't take a genius to find the name of the company and drug even though no names were used in the JGIM article. The following google searches based on phrases from the article are very revealing: A search on anticoagulant+orthopedic+surgery+france shows "Exanta" as the third hit and the linked article indicates A-Z as the maker; a search on exanta+fda+hepatotoxicity pretty much confirms this drug as the one mentioned in the articles.

Much like in recent politics, the "World Library Computer" formed by the Internet and its search engines makes concealing certain business activities much harder than in the past.

Addendum: In the Guardian article "Not in my name" it is written that AstraZenica said:
Most pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca, use professional writers to assist in manuscript development, when the named authors lack the time or expertise to produce a well-written publication."
I thought having the expertise to produce well-written, primary-author publications was a major criteria for academic credibility, recognition and advancement. However, we seem to now be discovering that like many other corporate functions, it's simply viewed as a skillset to be outsourced to increase profit.


-- SS

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When it comes to ghostwriting clinical trials, this should be forbidden. Those with minimal research experience conduct such trials, which are monitored by IRBs that are for profit and equally in collusion with the pharma industry, and then the data is embellished and exaggerated with blatant omissions, yet is still published in journals due to the agreement of the sponsoring pharma company purchasing large quantities of reprints of such a trial, combined with agreeing to place copious advertisements of thier promoted products in such journals. So these trials created this way are marketing items only, with reckless disregard by the pharma company of the importance of keeping science objective and flawless to maintain integrity.