Oct 20, 2011

Ghost Writers, no longer skeletons in the closet

Ghost writing has been defined as the failure to designate an individual (as an author) who has made a substantial contribution to the research or writing a manuscript. Usually, there is a clause in the contract between the ghostwriter and credited author that obligates the former to remain anonymous.

Ghost writers exist in nonfiction and fiction publishing, autobiography writing and also music composers have long hired ghost writers to help them write music pieces and poetic songs. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is an example of a well-known composer who was paid to ghostwrite music for wealthy patrons. Additionally, publishers use ghostwriters to write new books for established series where the author is a pseudonym. The author of Nancy Drew mystery series, Carolyn Keene, is actually a pseudonym for a series of ghostwriters.

Previously identified as the dirty little secret of publishing industry, ghost writing is no longer a secret. A study shows that ghost writing is demonstrated in 13% of research articles, 10% of review articles and 6% of editorials. It has been a topic of investigation reports in various media outlets such as ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Guardian.

Medical ghost writing these days has gained significant concern in the literary web. Focusing on ghost writing involving pharmaceutical companies, the use of ghostwriters by industry is subject to increasing public attention and scrutiny. A ghost writer will typically draft the article, specifically ordered by the pharma industry; the academic sham author is then invited to review, revise, or simply sign. When the article appears in press, the academic appears to be the author while the contributors, the ghostwriter and the pharmaceutical company, remain silent. This practice is harmful both to the public and to scientific institutions and it is not justified by an analogy to accepted scientific authorship.

Doctors rely on scientific papers for accurate information regarding drugs and the best treatment strategies for patients, but are these trustworthy? Most featured scandals like: Vioxx involving Merck & Co, Glaxo Smithkline litigation concerning Paxil, Parke-Davis` linked to Neurontin, Wyeth`s litigation on Fen-Phen and Pfizer`s on Zoloft have blown the lid off the ghost writers connection in pharma publishing. Publication strategy is an important element of pharmaceutical marketing. There are two genres of ghost writers: for review articles and/or editorials and for original research papers. Ghost writers usually help in synthesizing various elements involved in the study so that none of the contributors are aware of how the entire study fits together. Hence, it is easy to spin the data in a way favorable to sponsors.

Ghost writers made both friends and foes. Critics say that the whole practice is unethical, yet this flare did not stop the fast evolving ghost writers' career. If ghost writing is a sin, then it is only a minor offence to those who are closely implicated in it. Defenders say that medical journals are partially supported by the revenue from these pharmaceutical companies.

Ghost writing for the pharmaceutical industries is also harmful to the public health. The lawsuits, surveys suggest that pharmaceutical companies try harder to shape the safety and efficacy if their product. Ghost written articles may mislead the doctors about the actual risk involved or benefits associated. The lack of genuine communication can harm a large number of people. Medical journals have become a marketing arm for the pharmaceutical companies. If the drug company publishes a large favorable clinical trial in a major journal, it can hire an expensive public relation firm to promote it and ensure that the trial receives media attention.

Ghost written articles conceal the interest of authors and sponsors in a way that makes it difficult to assess and contest the scientific data, eroding the objective of science itself. Trust is important with scientific information otherwise it cannot flourish. Writers are simply selling their skills. Their ethical failure has turned advantageous for the pharmaceutical companies for marketing purposes manipulating the good faith system of scientific communication. Universities need to cut the practice of signing on the ghost-written journals as academic misconduct. Lawyers should name the sham authors as defendants in litigations against pharmaceutical industry. Authors need to consider the harm they are doing to the biomedical literature and the profit they create to the pharmaceutical company, by molding the data for profit than for medical need. After all, even drug company employees get sick.

1: Guest Authorship and Ghostwriting in Publications Related to Rofecoxib
A Case Study of Industry Documents From Rofecoxib Litigation
Joseph S. Ross, MD, MHS,Kevin P. Hill, MD, MHS,David S. Egilman, MD, MPH,Harlan M. Krumholz, MD, SM.

2: Ghost marketing: pharmaceutical companies and ghostwritten journal articles
Barton Moffatt and Carl Elliott

3: Increasing the trust in scientific authorship, Max Lagnado.
The British Journal of Psychiatry 2003 183: 3-4

Written by Shalini P. Burra for The All Results Journals. 

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