Ghost-Writing and the Corruption of Research

Earlier today I posted, over at the Business Ethics Blog, an item called Wyeth, ‘Ghost-Writing’ and Conflict of Interest. It was based on this article by Natasha Singer, writing for the NY Times: Medical Papers by Ghostwriters Pushed Therapy

Newly unveiled court documents show that ghostwriters paid by a pharmaceutical company played a major role in producing 26 scientific papers backing the use of hormone replacement therapy in women, suggesting that the level of hidden industry influence on medical literature is broader than previously known.

The articles, published in medical journals between 1998 and 2005, emphasized the benefits and de-emphasized the risks of taking hormones to protect against maladies like aging skin, heart disease and dementia. That supposed medical consensus benefited Wyeth, the pharmaceutical company that paid a medical communications firm to draft the papers, as sales of its hormone drugs, called Premarin and Prempro, soared to nearly $2 billion in 2001….

On the Business Ethics Blog, I focused on the fact that the company involved, Wyeth, completely missed the point in arguing that the articles it paid to have ghost-written were scientifically sound. Wyeth’s argument misses the point, I said, because the problem with conflict of interest is not that it typically results in bad outcomes; the problem, rather, is that it shakes our confidence in the reliability of a decision-maker and possibly in an entire institution.

What I didn’t touch on in that blog entry is the role of the physician-researchers whose names appeared on the ghost-written papers. Clearly, their cooperation in the charade is crucial. And some of them — maybe all of them — also fail to see the true problem with ghost-writing. Check out this quotation, from Dr. Gloria Bachmann, one of the medical professionals involved:

“There was a need for a review article and I said ‘Yes, I will review the draft and make sure it is accurate,’ ” Dr. Bachmann said in an interview Tuesday. “This is my work, this is what I believe, this is reflective of my view.”

Once again, this misses the point entirely. The problem is not whether the paper that resulted from the ghost-writing process was sound, or whether it represented a point of view that Dr. Bachmann could stand behind. The point is: how can we be sure? How do we know just how much, or how little, influence Wyeth, had on the paper that resulted? It’s not that we don’t trust Dr. Bachmann. I, for one, am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. The problem is that the process used to generate the paper that bore her name was one highly likely to cast doubt upon the process of scientific publication. I wonder, if more researchers saw things that way, would they be more hesitant to participate in that process?

~ by Nancy Walton on August 5, 2009.

4 Responses to “Ghost-Writing and the Corruption of Research”

  1. Thanks for bringing this issue to light. This really does as you point out casts a shadow on all research as a whole. How can one know unless it is declared in the article no ghost writters were utilized in the formation of said article?
    Nothing to seperate a medical journal article from something one would read on the web. That’s scary.

    I enjoy your blog.

  2. I agree and I disagree. I am a social media copywriter and what some may call a ghostwriter. I’ve never written a medical study for a doctor, but I write blogs and updates for companies. It’s their voice, their brand and their message, but I’m putting it together. I’ve done this writing advertising, writing marketing brochures and now in the social media space. Is what I do so different? Should every ad come from the CEO? I don’t post under anyone’s name, just brands, so some might call it different, some wouldn’t. The point is, it’s no less real. My last post on my blog talks about the “voice” of the company. I’d love to hear what you think.

    A loyal reader.

  3. Where’s the controversy here? My kids would know not to sign a paper they haven’t written. See for a light approach to a serious ethical infraction. I’ve been writing for yrs, and every word under my name has been mine.

  4. David,

    I assume we both agree that there is a difference between writing a blog post under a company’s banner and ghostwriting a peer reviewed medical journal article by a writer hired by an industry with a stake in the study’s outcome.

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