Why We’re Opposed to Medical Ghostwriting

My friend Melanie Audette recently sent me an article from the New York Times about the problems of medical paper ghostwriting, and how Senator Charles Grassley (IA-R) is putting pressure on the National Institutes of Health to put a stop to it.

Medical ghostwriting, sayeth the Times, goes something like this:

But evidence of the breadth of the practice has come to light only gradually, most recently in documents released in litigation over menopause drugs made by Wyeth.

The documents offer a look at the inner workings of DesignWrite, a medical writing company hired by Wyeth to prepare an estimated 60 articles favorable to its hormone drugs. In one publication plan, for example, DesignWrite wrote that the goal of the Wyeth articles was to de-emphasize the risk of breast cancer associated with hormone drugs, promote the drugs as beneficial and blunt competing drugs. The articles were published in medical journals between 1998 and 2005 — continuing even though a big federal study was suspended in 2002 after researchers found that menopausal women who took certain hormones had an increased risk of invasive breast cancer and heart disease.

We’re opposed to this kind of ghostwriting, because it’s dishonest, unethical, and presents all kinds of conflicts of interest.

“What’s that?” you’re asking. “But you’re in the ghostwriting business.”

Yes, but we’re not that kind of ghostwriter.

In medical ghostwriting, a writer for a pharmaceutical company will create a scientific paper extolling the virtues, efficacy, and non-lethalness of their drugs. But rather than release them under their own name, they instead invite some university professors to attach their name to the paper. The professors get publication credit in medical journals (very important if they don’t have tenure), and the drug companies can say, “Look, Dr. Dwayne Hoover of Medical University said our drug works and won’t kill you.”

The full scope of the ghostwriting problem is still unclear, but recent revelations suggest that the practice is widespread. Dozens of medical education companies across the country draft scientific papers at the behest of drug makers. And placing such papers in medical journals has become a fundamental marketing practice for most of the large pharmaceutical companies.

You have hopefully seen the problem here. First, the professor didn’t write it. Second, the professor is attaching his or her name to a drug that may actually not work as advertised. Third, there is an assumption of public trust that the professor did the work and did not receive payment for allowing his or her name to be used.

Universities Hypocritical In Their Response to Plagiarism versus Medical Ghostwriting

The New York Times said something interesting, something that should send shudders through the hallowed halls of our educational institutions:

Yet many universities have been slow to recognize the extent of the problem, to adopt new ethical rules or to hold faculty members to account.

It’s rather ironic, since universities will expel students for putting their name on a paper someone else wrote, yet do nothing to the faculty members who do the exact same thing. So what’s the difference? Could it be that the professors bring in large research grants are valued members of the academic community and should be forgiven these little errors of judgment? If so, what kind of message does that send to the students who have been expelled for exactly the same thing? But more importantly. how will the universities turn their backs on all that money find a fair and ethical way to treat transgressors on both sides of the desk?

“But, but,” sputter the social media purists, “that’s what you do for your clients.”

Au contraire, my naïve little friends. We get the information from our clients and write it for them. The client tells us what they want to talk about, we gather the information by interviewing them, and then write the article based on what they told us. It’s the client’s words, the client’s thoughts, we just transcribed it.

It’s the same way a CEO writes a letter to the shareholders or a politician writes a speech (i.e. they don’t, someone else does).

“But, but,” re-sputter the purists, “it’s not their own work. They have to do their own work.”

Look, let’s join the real world here for a minute. As we have said before, this kind of ghostwriting goes on in the business and political world everywhere else. CEOs and politicians don’t write their own material, and no one has uttered a single squawk. Marketing directors freelance their graphics design and copywriting to professionals, and no one complains (nor should they). In fact, there are only two places where practitioners are expected to write their own content: journalism and. . . oh, uh. . . academia. Oopsie.

(And then there was one.)

Like I said, we’re opposed to medical ghostwriting. We never put words into a client’s mouth or thoughts into their head. Anything we create has originally come from the client, whether it’s a recorded interview, an article they forwarded, or even an article we found and asked “what do you think?” We don’t come up with something that may run counter to the client’s beliefs or practices and ask them to approve it.

This is vastly different from the university professors who let someone else write something they may not actually believe just for the sake of a publication credit and a fat research grant.

So while the academicians may sit on their high horse and unfurl their banners of academic integrity, you may want to take a look behind you first.

There seems to be some confusion within your own ranks.

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency in Indianapolis, IN. He co-authored three social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (2nd ed., 2012; Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.


    1. Hi Erik – I agree 100% with you. As a medical journalist/editor I do a lot of heavy editing for researchers who are preparing manuscripts for publication. I never put words in their mouths, or ideas in the heads, but I help them express themselves. I wondered why your title wasn’t “Why we’re NOT Opposed to Medical Ghostwriting”.
      Kate Johnson, Montreal
      .-= Kate Johnson´s last blog ..Swine Flu – Getting a Grassroots Grip =-.

      • Good point. It sounds like both you and we are after the same thing: helping people communicate better and more effectively. Sometimes it can be done through teaching and coaching, other times it’s just easier to do through editing and ghostwriting.

    2. Melanie Audette says:

      I KNEW you would have an interesting take on the article.


    1. […] The only place ghostwriting isn’t acceptable is journalism and academia, as it should be. Your merit is based on the work you produce; in business, it’s based on the results you achieve. (Although academia seems to have some of its own ghostwriting issues.) […]