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Friday 5 August 2011

Readings: On ghostwritten medical articles

So you read a medical journal and look at the author list to see who produced the research.

But did they really?  Often the listed authors of medical articles had little to do with the actual operation of the study in question.  The real authors are often professional ghostwriters.

Is this a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  Some brilliant researchers can't write comprehensible prose to save their lives.  Professional writers can be invaluable.

But what if the article is an evaluation of a medication, and the ghostwriter is an employee of the pharmaceutical company that stands to benefit if the data are interpreted in a manner that supports that medication's effectiveness?

I've often flipped to the results section of an article to see what actually happened in a study, and then read the article's conclusions only to wonder if they've somehow confused two different studies.  Sometimes the data seem to point clearly one way, but the discussion leads readers off in the opposite direction.  I remember a study in which a doubling of suicide risk among subjects taking a test medication was deemed a "minimal effect."  The distortions in data interpretation often seem motivated by a desire for the results to look a certain way.

The Public Library of Science recently published an argument that ghostwriting "raises serious ethical and legal concerns" and suggests that the "guest authors" - i.e., prominent physicians and academics whose names appear on articles but who did not actually write them - should be subject to legal penalties.  In effect, Simon Stern and Trudo Lemmens, authors (we can safely assume) of the piece suggest that attaching one's name to an article one did not write constitutes legal fraud.

It's an interesting debate, and you can read the full article here:

1 comment:

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