Senator Writes Letter To NIH About "Ghostwriting"

Plaintiffs in pharmaceutical and other biomedical litigation have frequently resorted to allegations of “ghostwriting” to attack various aspects of scientific articles that defendants seek to rely on.  “Ghostwriting” is a somewhat pejorative term used to vilify some versions of a common practice – the use of biomedical communications companies to provide professional assistance in medical research and/or writing. Plaintiffs often imply that the named author had little or nothing to do with the direction or content of the article.

Several courts have rejected such generally overblown allegations. In the HRT litigation, In re Prempro Products Liability Litigation, 554 F. Supp.2d 871 (E.D. Ark. 2008), the court noted that while plaintiff focused heavily on the evidence that Wyeth collaborated with authors to have articles written about HRT, there was no evidence that this practice is inappropriate or that Wyeth supported articles that it knew were false or misrepresented the science. Rather, the articles supported Wyeth’s position on the state of the science. Additionally, there was evidence that ghostwriting was a common practice in the industry.  Similarly, in In re Seroquel Prods. Liab. Litig., No. 6:06-md-1769-Orl-22DAB, slip op. at 3-5 (M.D. Fla. Jan. 30, 2009), Judge Conway held that plaintiffs could not use the words "ghostwriting" or "plagiarism" to characterize the process by which articles were written.

A “ghostwriter” may:
– Analyze data
– Research issues, gather review data
– Organize/format materials
– Assist in writing by, e.g., drafting publications

Such third-parties can save busy scientists time and effort- by doing time-consuming preliminary tasks. Having medical communications specialists involved can make the articles easier to read, more informative The fact is, a great doctor does not mean a great writer; outside writers can expedite publication and eliminate artificial drag in the process.

Nevertheless, Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has written a letter to NIH asking for information about possible ghostwriting:
I1) What is the current NIH policy on ghostwriting with regards to NIH researchers?  2) What is the current NIH policy on ghostwriting with regards to NIH grantee institutions? 3) What is the current NIH policy on ghostwriting with regards to primary investigators of NIH grants? 4) Has NIH received any complaints about individual grantee institutions, primary investigators and/or NIH researchers regarding possible ghostwriting, and if so how has NIH handled these complaints? 5) What is the current NIH policy regarding primary investigators found to have violated medical ethics and/or have medical licenses that have been suspended or revoked?

The response, when it comes, may be significant because the N.I.H. underwrites much of the country’s medical research. Many doctors depend on federal grants to support their work, and attaching fresh conditions to those grants could influence new publication guidelines more broadly.

In reality, typically, the named author has access to all data. The authors can reorganize the presentation of the data and edit the article. The articles are subjected to extensive peer review before publication, often in journals the author selects.  In litigation, the plaintiff’s prescriber may not have read or relied on any such articles. And doctors who prescribe are well familiar with the industry practice and custom. Plaintiff’s “ghostwriting” claims also fail to offer proof that the articles which were, in any event, peer-reviewed and medically sound, affected the FDA’s actions.

Any debate on “ghost writing” of medical publications ought to include an understanding of the realities of supply and demand for published research, of the time pressures, needs, and priorities of leading researchers, and the evidence demonstrating the author's control over final publication.

Readers of MassTortDefense interested in these issues should look at the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors' Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals: Writing and Editing for Biomedical Publication;  the American Medical Writers Association's Position Statement and Code of Ethics; and the  World Association of Medical Editors' Policy Statement on Ghost-writing Initiated by Commercial Companies.

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