Ghostwriting in Medical Literature – Senator Grassley Report

Following on from last year’s scandal about a major pharmaceutical company hiring ghostwriters to write review papers highlighting the benefits of certain drug therapies and downplaying the risks, a US senator has just published a minority staff report on medical ghostwriting.

Senator Charles E Grassley’s enquiries were initiated two years ago when he began looking into “industry practice to get articles published in major medical journals touting the benefits of a company’s product without public disclosure that the company initiated and paid for the development of the articles.”

The report, published on June 24, 2010, is a follow-on from this original enquiry, and stems from the lack of transparency apparent in the use of medical ghostwriters. The implications are obvious – if a well-known medical ‘name’ apparently writes a report, letter or article endorsing a particular product, this may then be a factor in persuading a physician to prescribe the drug.

Senator Grassley wrote to a number of medical schools and medical journals asking about their position on ghostwriting and this report relates the findings so far. The main findings were:

  • Although all medical schools either prohibit or do not condone medical ghostwriting, the report points out that the practice is hard to detect.
  • Despite attempts by medical journals to crack down on ghostwriting by introducing stringent authorship requirements, in practice “the prevalence of ghostwriting has not changed much in the past decade.
  • The involvement of pharmaceutical companies in medical publications “remains veiled or undisclosed.”
  • The National Institute of Health does not have any coherent joined up policy on disclosing the financing of ghostwritten articles by the pharmaceutical industry.

The report recommends that “in the interest of transparency and accountability, all parties who contribute substantively or financially to a publication should be acknowledged. Only then can readers understand the context of a study and be aware of any commercial interests that initiated and influenced the results or recommendations presented in the publication.”

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