WASHINGTON, D.C.—Everyone knows that the big pharmaceutical companies finance the research that is then fobbed off on the compliant Food and Drug Administration as independent, dispassionate examination of new drugs. But what isn’t so widely known is that the very articles written to support an existing drug or pave the way for introduction of a new drug—articles signed by the most reputable of experts—are ghostwritten.
Pharmaceutical firms engage intermediary companies to ghostwrite reports and then round up well-known names to sign them. The people signing these articles had nothing to do with the research that stands behind them and did not even have a hand in composing the articles they are signing.
This procedure makes fools of medical journals that participate—knowingly or unknowingly. And it is yet another step in the cloaking of advertising as journalism. In The Guardian (U.K.) last week, Adriane Fugh-Berman of Georgetown University describes how she was approached to sign an article she had never seen before.
“Last summer, I was asked by RxComms, a British medical communication company, to author a review of interactions between herbs and warfarin (a generic anticoagulant prescribed to prevent strokes or blood clots),” she writes. “Well, not ‘author,’ exactly. The usual practice is for a complete article to be supplied; all I would have to do was review it and sign it off. Months later, I received a completed, 2,848-word draft, with an abstract, references, and a table, ready for submission to a journal, with my name on it. A note asked me to return it with any changes within seven days.”
Fugh-Berman refused to go along and instead decided to write about her experience. RxComms apologized and told her it was a mistake. But an inquiry made clear that what Fugh-Berman experienced is pretty common.
Karen Pederson, director of media relations at The New England Journal of Medicine, tells the Voice, “We have a number of safeguards to try to protect us from publishing ghostwritten articles.” The journal requires authors to sign various forms “saying the writing is theirs, that they are the sole owners of the information.” She added, “Essentially what editors will say is that we go through such a rigorous review process and they have to have so many conversations with the writers” that by the time an article is published, any ghostwriting should have been exposed and gotten rid of.
“You can never say never,” she adds, “but we go through painstaking efforts to make sure that kind of thing doesn’t happen.”
The Journal of the American Medical Association also has published rules in an attempt to weed out ghostwritten articles.
Additional reporting: Halley Bondy, Christine Lu, and Natalie Wittlin