When you, or more likely your doctor, reads an article in a medical journal on the efficacy of a certain drug, it would be nice to know whether the article includes research or writing contributions from people or companies other than the credited author — such as, say, the pharmaceutical company that makes the drug.
But according to a new study by the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association, some of the top medical journals have published a significant number of articles written by ghostwriters without notifying readers about any potential conflict of interest.
“In the scientific literature, ghostwriting usually refers to medical writers, often sponsored by a drug or medical device company, who make major research or writing contributions to articles published under the names of academic authors,” write Duff Wilson and Natasha Singer in The New York Times, which covered the study last week.
The Times has published several other articles on this topic recently, including news that Wyeth pharmaceutical company paid ghostwriters to produce 26 scientific papers promoting the benefits and downplaying the risks of hormone replacement therapy. (Read our coverage, including Stephen Colbert’s take.)
Considering what’s at stake — treatment decisions and patient care — it’s remarkable that articles in well-respected, peer-reviewed journals are not fully transparent.
The JAMA editors created an anonymous, online questionnaire for authors of journal articles. The authors were asked to self-report their own behavior. Authors of 630 articles responded; of them, 7.8 percent acknowledged other people worked on the articles and the contributions were substantial enough that they should have been listed as authors.
The New England Journal of Medicine had the highest rate of ghostwriting at 10.9 percent. The rate was 7.9 percent in JAMA; 7.6 percent in The Lancet; 7.6 percent in PLoS Medicine; 4.9 percent in The Annals of Internal Medicine; and 2 percent in Nature Medicine.
“It was very compelling, and I find it quite shocking, to be honest,” Ginny Barbour, chief editor of PLoS Medicine, the journal of the Public Library of Science, said after the findings were unveiled at an international meeting of journal editors in Vancouver. “We are a journal that has very tough policies, very explicit policies on ghostwriting and contributorship, and I feel that we’ve basically been lied to by authors.”
Read more from PLoS here.
The news comes just weeks after the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a federal agency that invests more than $30 billion in medical research each year, most of which is awarded through competitive grants to researchers at universities, medical schools and other research institutions, came under fire for not promoting a clear policy on ghostwriting with regards to NIH-funded researchers and institutions.
In a letter to the NIH, which was obtained by The New York Times, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) identified researchers at Columbia University and University of Maryland who were recipients of NIH grants and who have signed on to ghostwritten publications. Academic institutions traditionally have also taken a hands-off approach.