“Ghostbusters” Are Weeding Out Fake Authors at Medical Journals

A few brave medical journal editors are cracking down on the common practice of drug companies ghost-writing articles for authors who are willing to lend their names to drug industry propaganda. But at other journals, editors seem to have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. For patients, it is vital that the truth come out.

The problem with ghost-written medical articles is that they purport to be something that — once the disclosure of who wrote them is made — they clearly are not: independent, objective evaluations of which medications work best for a particular disease. Instead, the ghosted articles turn out to be elaborate infomercials, disguised by the author’s prestigious name and studded with multiple footnotes and the other signs of scholarly elbow grease. Yet because they are published under false pretenses, these articles can be very effective at selling their sponsors’ products.

What first broke open this scandal was lawsuits against Wyeth for breast cancer and other injuries caused by its hormone drugs Prempro and Premarin. Attorneys for the patients found multiple examples in the manufacturer’s records of prominent medical researchers putting their names on articles written by someone hired by the drug company.

Some of the medical school professors who were caught tried to brazen their way out of it by saying that of course, they wouldn’t put their name on something they didn’t agree with, and they just happened to agree with every single word that was written for them. For example:

Dr. Gloria Bachmann of the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine said in a published report: “This is my work, this is what I believe, this is reflective of my view.”

With shameless attitudes like that rife in the medical academic world, it’s important for the editors who control what goes into the journals to step up and enforce some accountability. The first steps down that road have been cautious at best. As the New York Times reported:

Dr. Cynthia E. Dunbar, the editor in chief of Blood, said that, in the future, the journal would consider a ban of several years for authors caught lying about ghostwriting, in addition to retracting their ghosted articles.

But, said Dr. Dunbar, who is a hematologist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, “I hope we don’t have to do that.”

The Times reported on another journal that took a stand:

In an editorial last week calling for a zero tolerance policy, the editors of the medical journal PLoS Medicine, from the Public Library of Science, called for journals to identify and retract ghostwritten articles and banish their authors.

“Any papers where this breach is substantiated should be immediately retracted,” the editors wrote. “Authors found to have not declared such interest should be banned from any subsequent publication in the journal and their misconduct reported to their institutions.”

Click here to read the full editorial.

Other journal editors told the Times that because they banned ghostwriting, they didn’t really have to have a specific policy enforcing the ban. Huh???

For an amusingly arch, tell-it-like-it-is take about medical ghostwriting from someone outside the medical industry, I recommend English professor Margaret Soltan’s blog, University Diaries.

The ghostwriting scandal, and the cautious, tepid response from many in the medical journal world, are the latest proof of why I advocate that patients be skeptical about prescription drugs, especially those with expensive marketing campaigns behind them. Read more in Chapter 7 of my book, “The Life You Save: Nine Steps to Finding the Best Medical Care — and Avoiding the Worst.” The chapter is titled: “Drugs: A Dose of Reality About the Prescription Drug Industry and How You Can Safely Use Medicines.”

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