In the world of medical research, peer-reviewed articles and studies are like currency, influencing physicians, consumers, and the public at large. But who influences the content of those articles. As the top medical malpractice attorneys of Passen & Powell are well aware, often these articles are heavily influenced by so-called “academic ghostwriters,” individuals and companies hired by the pharmaceutical companies to write articles promoting their products and treatments, to be published under the names of true academics.
The problem of academic ghostwriting is startlingly widespread. In fact, a recent study looked at six leading medical journals, and found that 7.8 percent of articles published in those journals had at least one ghostwriter. And the Canadian Medical Association Journal has publicly estimated that it rejects somewhere between 5 and 10 articles submitted each year because the journal determines that they were ghostwritten by or with the assistance of a pharmaceutical company. Imagine how many ghostwritten articles are not being caught!
Some of the most famous, and infamous, pharmaceutical products on the market have been the subject of ghostwriting campaigns. Hormone replacement therapy, a controversial treatment for menopausal women, was the subject of a nearly decade-long ghostwriting marketing campaign. Paxil and Zoloft, antidepressants prescribed at astounding rates, have come under fire for the use of ghostwritten artiles touting their benefits. Likewise, Vioxx, a painkiller taken off the market in 2004 when it came to light that it caused heart attacks, used a ghostwriting promotional campaign. These same medications are often at the heart of products liability lawsuits – indeed, that is often how the ghostwriting campaign first comes to light.
Many physician-authors and other researchers who receive ghostwriting assistance, however, do not appear to realize that they are in fact in league with the pharmaceutical companies. The perfect example is Barbara Sherwin, a psychology professor at McGill University and a celebrated expert in the interaction of hormones and cognition.
In 1998, Professor Sherwin was approached by a woman, Karen Mittleman, whom she had known for two years, and who worked for a medical communications company, and told that she had been “invited” to write an article on pharmacological treatment options for age-associated memory loss for the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Professor Sherwin accepted, and accepted the help of the company, DesignWrite, in editing the subsequent article, typing and organizing her notes, providing her with references, and other similar assistance.
What Professor Sherwin didn’t realize is that DesignWrite was actually acting on behalf of pharmaceutical giant Wyeth (which has since then become a part of Pfizer), as part of a concerted campaign to promote hormone replacement therapy by placing scientific articles extolling its benefits and downplaying or minimizing the risks.
Professor Sherwin learned about the connection between DesignWrite and Wyeth the hard way – when she was named as part of a class-action lawsuit against Wyeth by thousands of women injured by hormone replacement therapy. In many cases, Wyeth paid DesignWrite to actually produce the articles, then provide them to the “authors”: academics who simply signed their names.
In Professor Sherwin’s case, the situation seems to have been far more complex. But Mittleman herself testified in deposition that a ghostwriter at DesignWrite had, in fact, authored the paper – a claim rejected by McGill University when it cleared Professor Sherwin after an eight-month investigation.
Such complicated relationships are not unique to Professor Sherwin. Indeed, Linda Logdberg, herself a former academic ghostwriter, has publicly stated that it was not unusual for her, acting on behalf of her pharmaceutical clients, to approach researchers while withholding her connection to the company. She would then provide the author, on the pharmaceutical company’s behalf, with “assistance” ranging from editing to completely writing the article for publication under the academic’s name.
What is truly surprising is that, even in light of the lawsuits and publicity that the academic ghostwriting has garnered, nothing is being done to correct the problem. The pharmaceutical companies and their medical-information-company partners insist that the practice is ethical, so long as they are not dictating the conclusions of the paper. Meanwhile, only a handful of medical schools even have a policy against the practice, and likewise, only a handful of medical journals have such policies.
The first step, of course, is to put such policies in place at every medical school, and every medical journal. Failing that, regulations must be put in place prohibiting undisclosed academic ghostwriting. In the meantime, lawsuits by experienced medical malpractice and products liability attorneys will continue to ferret out this dangerous practice.
For a free consultation with an Chicago pharmaceutical negligence lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.