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Ghostwriting Prevalent in Medical Journals, Study says

Sep 21, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

Nearly eight percent of all medical journal articles are the work of industry-paid ghostwriters, according to a study that recently appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  The paper was presented this month at the sixth annual International Congress on Peer Review Congress and Biomedical Publication in Vancouver, Canada,

As we’ve reported in the past, ghostwriting involves the act of a drug company producing a journal article aimed at either counteracting criticism of a drug or embellishing its benefits. Usually, a drug maker hires a professional writing company to draft the article, and recruits a physician to sign off as the author. Once the article has been published, drug sales reps often present copies of the piece to physicians as evidence that the drug covered in the article is safe and effective. Critics of the pharmaceutical industry claim ghostwriting is a common practice.

We have long been reporting on the frequent use of ghostwriting by drug makers.  For instance, in August, we detailed the so-called CASPPER program uncovered by attorneys representing plaintiffs in Paxil lawsuits.  According to an Associated Press report on the program, one memo instructed Glaxo salespeople to approach physicians and offer to help them write and publish articles about their positive experiences prescribing Paxil.

Also in August, we reported that Wyeth-paid ghostwriters had authored more than two dozen medical journal articles to promote hormone replacement therapy. According to a report in The New York Times, the articles were published under the bylines of doctors who did not contribute much to the actual piece.

For the JAMA ghostwriting study, the authors conducted a  survey of 900 research articles, reviews, or editorials that appeared in six general medical journals in 2008: Annals of Internal Medicine, JAMA, The Lancet, Nature Medicine, New England Journal of Medicine, and PLoS Medicine.   The article authors were asked  to complete an online questionnaire about ghostwriting and honorary authorship. The researchers conducting the survey received replies from 630 authors.

They found that 7.8 percent of all medical journal articles were written by un-credited ghostwriters.  So-called "Honorary Authors" were also listed in about 20.6 percent of medical journal articles the researchers reviewed.  An Honorary Author is someone credited with an article, but who in reality contributed very little.

The publication with the highest prevalence of ghostwritten articles was the New England Journal of Medicine, with 11 percent.  The journal Nature Medicine had the highest prevalence of Honorary Authors, with 39 percent, the survey found.


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