medical ghost writing: why do these people keep their jobs?

Several recent reports (e.g., this one) have detailed the relatively common practice of drug companies writing full studies of the safety and efficacy of their drugs, then paying medical faculty to approve the pre-written item and seek its publication in major journals. This strikes me as straightforward academic dishonesty, not even particularly nuanced or complicated. Why is this not grounds for dismissal of the faculty who do it? Thoughts?

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

3 thoughts on “medical ghost writing: why do these people keep their jobs?”

  1. Other reports I’ve read suggest that the drug companies target people who are already viewed as experts in the area in question, and that these folks generally claim they did have a role in writing the articles. I suspect that anyone trying to get rid of people in these positions would be facing an uphill battle. See http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/12/business/13wyeth.html and the doc who claims she written about 1,000 articles. She’s 75, so assuming she’s been publishing since she was 25 that’s 20 articles a year. Really? I’ve seen people in other fields with suspiciously high levels of productivity. There are a lot of gray areas in academia with respect to when it’s okay to claim ownership of writing that you didn’t actually do, and this is but one small area. When you look at the number of articles some people claim to write, they can’t be looking at them too closely. A lot of articles in medical and science journals have a lot of authors and a concomitant diffusion of responsibility for reporting responsibility for authorship. I would bet that the authors who responded to this survey were just looking closely at the author and acknowledgment list for their articles for the first time, and realized that not everyone was included. Maybe they even delegated the preparation of the survey to an assistant! There’s the inevitable pressure to publish behind this as well, but a lot of these people are probably genuinely interested in the questions raised by the article proposed by the drug company and have done similar research (or should I say “research”?) in the past. They probably have some phone conversations before the article is written (or presented to them) and may think that they are influencing the direction of the article more than they actually are. Someone at the drug company takes responsibility for drafting the article, circulates it and the target gives it a casual once-over, and then the drug company submits it. Other people are doing similar things with respect to having students or academic staff write things with their name on it (as I know from personal experience). A solution? I don’t know—a randomized public scrutiny of people’s publications in terms of explaining how exactly it came to be written, where claims that the ideas for the paper were theirs, but were presented in only verbal fashion to be written up by others, are viewed with skepticism?

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  2. The problem with this strategy is that it could eventually stop working. Regulators could discount studies when they detect corporate influence. Last year, Justice Souter declined to rely on some Exxon-sponsored research about the effect of punitive damages in a Supreme Court case last year. The story was in the Times at http://snipurl.com/rzlea .

    The Times article talks about William Freudenburg, who Exxon tried to pay to do some research on punitive damages, which he wrote about in Sociological Forum in 2005. Freudenburg wrote “the corporation’s most effective techniques of influence may have been provided not by overt pressure, but by encouraging scientists to continue thinking of themselves as independent and impartial.” The article is: William Freudenburg, 2005. “Seeding Science, Courting Conclusions: Reexamining the Intersection of Science, Corporate Cash, and the Law.” Sociological Forum 20:3-33.

    It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, Margaret Hamburg does about corporate-funded research in FDA drug approvals.

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  3. I took a break and read the Freudenburg article. Several things struck me about the actions of the corporation. (1) It was thinking about the long haul. It wasn’t worried about the original trial, but about the appeals. So the contract was to produce an article that would be published several years down the road. (2) They chose people by what they were already doing. (3) They wanted people who had published some things that opposed their interests, so they would be “credible.” (4) They declined to pay for an article that didn’t seem useful enough to them. The offer of money wasn’t made to get an author would think thoughts he would never think anyway, but to shape which things he put on the front burner rather than the back burner to bring them to publication.

    Corporate money is also being used in a big way to fund state judge races to get courts that will be generally favorable to corporation sides in litigation and unfavorable to consumer or employee sides.

    So it sort of seems like the sociology of law and related matters is where corporate money may be going in social science. I wonder if there are other areas.

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