KSJ Tracker January 30, 2013

Ghostwriting rampant in medical journal articles.

It's always nice to see one of those pop-up messages that says a friend of yours has endorsed you on LinkedIn--for blogging, or editing, or journalism. One might trumpet one's own expertise, but plaudits from others carry more weight.

Pharmaceutical companies have evidently found that to be true as well, because they have shown a fondness for getting outside experts to endorse their products. Sometimes they do it by writing articles extolling their products and persuading--or paying--an outside expert to sign on as the author. As the Forest Pharmaceuticals marketing plan for Lexapro put it, “Bylined articles will allow us to fold Lexapro’s message into articles about depression, anxiety, and comorbidity.”

That comes from a three-part series on medical-journal ghostwriting at HealthNewsReview.org. The authors--Jonathan Leo, a professor of neuroanatomy at Lincoln Memorial University-DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine in Tennessee, and Jeffrey Lacasse, an assistant professor of social work at Arizona State University--have uncovered ghastly examples of medical ghostwriting that rival the deceptions of such infamous journalists as Jonah Lehrer, Jayson Blair, and Stephen Glass. Except that in these cases more is at stake than the careers of the journalists: Ghostwritten articles have the potential to spread false information about medical findings and injure or kill patients whose treatment is based on such false information.

They have found not only that the practice is widespread, but that the medical community is reluctant to crack down on the practice. " Unfortunately, until medical schools and journals make it absolutely clear that the bylines on medical papers should be accurate, readers should realize that the papers they are reading might be written by company employees," they write.

The series and its links would be a good starting point for reporters who want to investigate this issue. It's not an easy story to do, but it's an important one.

-Paul Raeburn


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