Medical Ghostwriting (2010)
Ghostwriting, the practice of publishing an article in which an outside writer has done extensive work on the article without being named on the publication, has become prevalent in the scientific community. Particularly, according to the New York Times, medical journals are publishing articles written by an unnamed writer (sometimes paid by the company whose product is being studied) but giving author credit to a prominent academic. Ghostwriting can mislead doctors about the benefits or effectiveness of drugs or devices by manipulating the information to the industry’s advantage and using a prominent author name to exploit it. This practice has serious consequences for quality and reliability in medical scholarship as well as ramifications for the flow of accurate information to the public.
Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has said ghostwriting hurts patients and raises costs for taxpayers because it uses prestigious academic names to promote medical products and treatments that might be expensive or less effective than viable alternatives. The Senator has sent letters to top medical schools regarding the practice. He has also applied pressure to the National Institutes of Health to crack down on ghostwriting. In June, 2010 Senator Grassley issued a congressional report recommending measures to cut down on medical ghostwriting.
An example of the dangers of ghostwriting involves scientific papers and the use of hormone replacement therapy. In August 2009, the New York Times reported that court documents have shown that ghostwriters paid by a pharmaceutical company played a major role in producing 26 scientific papers that backed the use of hormone replacement therapy in women. While emphasizing the benefits, the articles simultaneously de-emphasized the risks of taking hormones. These articles created the illusion of medical community consensus which in turn benefited the drug company. As the New York Times articulated, the danger in ghostwriting is that doctors rely on medical literature and might change their opinions and prescription habits after reading articles, unaware that the articles were commissioned and paid for by a drug company.
Ghostwriting appears to be quite prevalent. A survey cited by Nature News found that of 600 authors who had published papers in six major medical journals in 2008, 7.8% indicated there was a ghost author who had contributed significantly but was not credited. In response many journal editors “name and shame” the parties responsible for the ghostwritten article after it has been discovered. They publish a notice that the manuscript has been ghostwritten along with the names of those responsible and alert the academic institution involved as well as the media.