A recent commenter, Dan, suggested I check out some of Jeffrey Lacasse’s articles on ghostwriting.
I’ve read two of Jeffrey’s articles: Ghostwriting and Academic Medicine and Knowledge of ghostwriting and financial conflicts-of-interest reduces the perceived credibility of biomedical research (both co-authored with Jonathan Leo), and found them excellent. Ghostwriting in this context, for readers not familiar with the term, works like this. A pharmaceutical company does a piece of research which establishes that their product is effective and safe. (There are various ways to ensure this result, and the pharmaceutical companies know them all.) Then they get one of their own technical writers to write the research up, but this writer’s name does not go on the report. Instead, the pharmaceutical company gets an eminent medical academic who has a financial link to the company to put his name on the piece, as if he were indeed the researcher and the author.
At the risk of stating the obvious, this is unethical money-grubbing at its slimiest, but judging from the number of exposés in recent years, it is by no means rare. Additionally, medical academics who have been outed for this kind of thing seem to have no regrets or shame about the matter, even though by endorsing unproven products in this way they are clearly exposing consumers to risk of serious harm.
Ghostwriting is not confined to psychiatric drugs, but seems to occur in a wide range of specialties.
Here are some quotes from Ghostwriting and Academic Medicine by Jonathan Leo and Jeffrey Lacasse.
“The practice of ghostwriting—an academic sleight of hand—has led some researchers to declare that many journal articles are little more than infomercials. But unbeknownst to the public, medical-school faculty members continue to use standards of authorship that would be unacceptable in any department in the humanities or the social sciences. Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate committee, recently released a congressional report on “Ghostwriting in Medical Literature” that clearly indicates academic medicine has yet to take strong steps to eliminate ghostwriting.”
“…we discovered that some of the most prestigious academic psychiatrists in the United States put their names on articles created at the company and did not disclose the corporate authorship in the published article. For example, one review article managed by CMD recommended Zoloft as the preferred antidepressant, without disclosing Pfizer’s role in the publication.”
“Similarly, because of legal action, behind-the-scenes documents are available regarding the most infamous of ghostwritten studies, Study 329. That study, a clinical trial of Paxil for children, failed to find a positive effect for the medication and found evidence of harm. However, a ghostwritten article, managed by the marketing department of SmithKline Beecham, reported that Paxil was generally safe and effective.”
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that medical research has been successfully hijacked by pharmaceutical companies, and has lost all credibility. There probably are pieces of genuine research out there – but how can you tell which is which?
I strongly recommend the articles by Jeffrey Lacasse and Jonathan Leo.