Research Article: What Should Be Done To Tackle Ghostwriting in the Medical Literature?

Date Published: February 3, 2009

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Peter C Gøtzsche, Jerome P Kassirer, Karen L Woolley, Elizabeth Wager, Adam Jacobs, Art Gertel, Cindy Hamilton

Abstract: Background to the DebateGhostwriting occurs when someone makes substantial contributions to a manuscript without attribution or disclosure. It is considered bad publication practice in the medical sciences, and some argue it is scientific misconduct. At its extreme, medical ghostwriting involves pharmaceutical companies hiring professional writers to produce papers promoting their products but hiding those contributions and instead naming academic physicians or scientists as the authors. To improve transparency, many editors’ associations and journals allow professional medical writers to contribute to the writing of papers without being listed as authors provided their role is acknowledged. This debate examines how best to tackle ghostwriting in the medical literature from the perspectives of a researcher, an editor, and the professional medical writer.

Partial Text: Scientific communication depends on trust. We should be able to believe what we read, and trust that knowledge when we plan experiments and treat patients. Unfortunately, we cannot. Conflicts of interest are ubiquitous; billions of dollars are being earned undeservedly by drug companies through flaws in research, research articles, reviews, and editorials; and many academic careers have also been built on doubtful evidence. The recent stream of books about the corruptive influence of money on health care research and practice, some of which have been written by editors of our most prestigious journals [1–3], illustrates just how bad the situation is.

Ghostwriting debases fundamental tenets of the medical profession. It violates authors’ personal integrity, responsibility, and accountability. More importantly, ghostwriting threatens the very fabric of science and thus the validity of our medical knowledge, and in doing so it jeopardizes patient care.

Professional medical writers have been recognized by medical journal editors as legitimate contributors to manuscripts [4,10], but concerns remain about “ghostwriting,” namely the failure to disclose such contributions. Professional medical writers, who must be distinguished from ghostwriters [18], could be valuable allies to those determined to eradicate ghostwriting. Professional medical writers have communication expertise and health care knowledge, and abide by ethical guidelines for medical writers. They assist authors to prepare documents (e.g., abstracts, slides, posters, and manuscripts), but ensure that the authors control the content and that appropriate disclosures of funding and involvement are made. We believe that professional medical writers can offer unique, and too frequently untapped, insight into how to address ghostwriting. We offer the perspective of professional medical writers on three strategies that have been considered for tackling ghostwriting.



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