The Oncologist Takes Action on Ghost Writers

The uninitiated could be forgiven for assuming, upon seeing a research article with a prominent physician-researcher’s name at the top, published in a respected medical journal, that that physician-researcher had actually written the article. But that’s not always the case. Articles are sometimes written, in whole or in part, by ‘ghost writers,’ whose expertise is not always known and whose loyalties do not necessarily lie with the public interest. Medical journals — conscientious ones — are justifiably concerned about the practice. Here’s a prominent journal taking action on the issue.

From Bruce A. Chabner, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The Oncologist: Ghost Writers in the Sky

Lately The Oncologist has received a spate of articles written with the assistance of paid medical writers, “ghost” writers if you will, who are not recognized in the authorship byline, but who contribute in variable degrees to the final product. These writers are usually recorded in an acknowledgment and their support from a pharmaceutical company may be identified, but their role in producing the intellectual product is often unclear. In some cases, once we have asked for clarification of a writer’s role, or during the course of revising the manuscript, it becomes apparent that his or her role is predominant. We have seen revisions that have been made and transmitted by ghost writers, and not the authors. Indeed, the role of the named authors at times seems incidental, as the ghost writers have taken over the project.

So, The Oncologist has instituted a new policy. The policy reads, in part:

For the monthly issues of The Oncologist, we will accept papers for review only if the article was written, endorsed, and proffered for publication by the authors identified in the byline. The authors must attest that this is their creation for which they take full responsibility. If a paid writer participates in the writing of the article, the nature of that assistance must be clearly identified in the acknowledgment, and the source of support for that writer must also be stated. If the support for the ghost writer comes directly or indirectly from a party with a commercial interest in the content, and the hired writer has had the primary responsibility for writing and submitting the paper, but is not identified as an author, we will not accept the article for review or publication. If a company employee participates in designing and executing a clinical trial and participates in the writing of a paper, their authorship is not only acceptable, it is necessary. We will correspond with authors of the paper, but not with hired writers who are not recorded as authors. We will also not accept review articles for publication in our regular monthly issues if they are written by a ghost writer paid directly or indirectly by a drug sponsor.

I don’t know whether other journals have such policies. But it will be interesting to see if those that don’t have them end up following suit. And if they don’t…why not?

~ by Nancy Walton on March 27, 2009.

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