What if everybody just started telling the truth about medical ghostwriting?

ghostwriter cartoon

Once upon a time, the drug giant Wyeth Pharmaceuticals wanted to get some medical journal articles published that would emphasize the positives and de-emphasize the negatives about their hormone replacement drugs, Premarin and Prempro. For the sake of clarity, let’s call this “lying”.

What’s a poor drug giant to do? How about getting well-known medical school professors and researchers to submit HRT-flattering articles to medical journals, pretending that they are the sole authors instead of the hired medical ghostwriters who actually wrote them? And thus a brilliant marketing scam is hatched.  

And it’s working – 26 of these bought and paid for articles are accepted and published in prestigious medical journals. Doctors reading the journals believe the articles (unaware that they were commissioned by a drug company) and start prescribing your HRT drugs like crazy. Sales of Premarin and Prempro explode to $2 billion (by far the best-selling HRT on the market). The unethical physician ‘authors’ take credit for one more title on the all-important lists of academic publications on their CV.

Everything is swell, until one horrible day when that pesky Women’s Health Initiative, an independent federally-funded research project, halts a major HRT study.  It reveals that, unlike what your hired flacks have been paid to say in all those tainted medical journals, women taking HRT actually suffer significantly higher rates of heart disease and breast cancer than those who did not take HRT. Sales of HRT drugs fall off a cliff, and you find yourself the target of over 8,400 lawsuits from patients claiming that Wyeth drugs have caused serious harm. It is the worst possible outcome for a drug giant.

This is the kind of juicy issues management case that takes me back to my old corporate PR days. I would dearly love to be a fly on the wall over at Wyeth, or at the medical ghostwriting company, or at one of the growing list of universities now being slammed for having lying cheats on their payroll, but especially in the flopsweat-soaked offices of the exposed med school profs who, like Dr. Barbara Sherwin at McGill University, are now offering a version of this preposterous defense to the media: “Who knew that a drug company was paying my ghostwriters?” You can bet that all parties are at this very moment shrieking in unison at their high-priced PR consultants: “DO SOMETHING!” to help stop the big bad media onslaught. I must say that, from a public relations perspective, it looks bad.

In the Reputation Management workshops I used to teach to corporate audiences, I liked to tell two real-life PR stories that illustrate the best and the worst in crisis communications and issues management: the Johnson & Johnson Tylenol Murders story, and Union Carbide’s Bhopal poison gas leak story respectively. I’d recommend a careful review of these two cases to all parties involved, now trying desperately to scrape the medical ghostwriting poop off their clean shoes as if it were merely an accident that they had stepped in it in the first place.

So let’s take a wee break from all this lying, and just tell the truth for a change. My recommendations:

Design Write (the medical communications firm who wrote the 26+ published scientific papers on Wyeth’s dime).  Try saying something like: “We are a team of professional writers  with advanced degrees who have an excellent reputation for producing a broad range of medical-journal-ready articles. And they don’t stop with rave reviews of only hormone replacement therapy drugs!  Oh, no! We’ll write really convincing articles for false sole authorship claims by any academic professional of your choosing , on any topic as advertised on our website:

  • allergies
  • cardiology
  • endocrinology
  • gastroenterology
  • hematology
  • immunology
  • infectious  diseases
  • oncology
  • orthopedics
  • pain management
  • rheumatology
  • urology
  • virology
  • women’s health
  • wound care

And besides, every other medical ghostwriting firm is doing this, too. Just check your favourite medical journal for (uncredited) examples of our work.”

Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (the subsidiary of drug giant Pfizer*, who hired Design Write ghostwriters to produce 26+ scientific papers for submission to medical journals). “We are a compassionate and caring company. We especially care about our beloved shareholders. Women who are hurt by our drugs?  Not so much. We like to keep well known doctors in our pockets because you just never know when we might need them to pose as ‘authors’ to help our drug marketing pitch in medical journals someday. We are very savvy marketers. In fact, like most players in the $235 billion pharmaceutical industry, we spend on average 24% of every sales dollar to market our drugs compared to just 13% on research and development. And, although we have suddenly smartened up in the face of those 8,400 lawsuits by now insisting that our ‘authors’ actually participate in the ‘research’ we pay for, every other pharmaceutical company out there is doing the same thing, so it’s not fair that we are being singled out for shame.”

University academics (who submitted the Wyeth-commissioned articles to medical journals and fraudulently passed off these papers as their own).  “We are very busy physicians and teachers who must ‘publish or perish’ if we want to make tenure, get promoted, receive more grants, or get the new Beamer and the Benz. Everybody knows that. We realize that we’re lying when we attach our names to these articles as authors, but, really, who has the time to do all this research and writing anyway? And since getting one more article published is always what matters, the ends do justify the means. The fact that our secret relationships with Big Pharma taint all of our published articles, past and future, is a consequence that will affect our reputations and those of our university employers, big time. It’s so unfair. Maybe we should have seen this scandal coming earlier. In the meantime, we know that lots of journal articles (nobody can be really sure how many)  are supplied by paid industry ghostwriters and not the physician ‘authors’ listed, so what’s the big deal?  Everybody else is doing it.”

Universities (who employ the academics in their medical schools). “We are outraged and very concerned. We will immediately launch the most aggressive investigation possible of our professors. We will distance ourselves lickety-split from them and all of this nasty and unwanted attention that is now spotlighting our elitist ivory towers. The integrity of our hallowed institutions is at stake, blah blah blah. We get that now. We really had no idea that this appalling practice was going on, honest we didn’t, cross our hearts and hope to die.We will not tolerate our professors engaging in fraudulent and potentially dangerous medical ghostwriting any longer, although it’s worked pretty well for us so far, garnering respect, international exposure and big money for our institutions, not to mention spinoff citations in hundreds of other (real) medical journal articles. And every other university is doing this, too! Did we mention that we are outraged and very concerned?”

Medical journal editors: “Ghostwriting? What’s that?  Hahahaha. Jeez, can’t you take a joke? We are not idiots, no matter what the public may now believe. Of course we’ve known the score for some time. Everybody here knows that this is just how it’s done: Big Pharma buys its way to increased sales by getting into bed with the docs who agree to be the pretend ‘authors’ of what boils down to be product marketing campaign material. We run these as peer-reviewed scientific papers, even though our reviewers don’t like to pry into the reasons that the lone ‘authors’ decline to reveal that drug companies pay for their papers. Perhaps because our reviewers themselves are also on the take. Who knows? Everybody is doing this, really. And those unsuspecting MDs out there are none the wiser because they blindly trust what they read in our journals. Besides, the truth is that these scientific papers can mean big money for our journals down the road. The New England Journal of Medicine, for example, sold 929,400 reprints of a single research article about the painkiller Vioxx (mostly sold to the drug’s manufacturer Merck to distribute to physicians as part of the sales pitch) bringing in more than $697,000 in revenue for the journal.”

Well, here’s another truth, from the perspective of a heart attack survivor who takes a fistful of cardiac meds every morning: medical ghostwriting isn’t only unethical, it’s irresponsibly dangerous to the health of millions of trusting patients worldwide. I may very well be putting powerful drugs into my body each day that were prescribed precisely because pharmaceutical companies and their partners in slime convinced my physicians that these drugs are safe and effective. But how do I know now which ones I can trust — and which ones I can’t? Not even my doctors can know this.

Willing participants in medical ghostwriting, what the Public Library of Science Medicine calls ‘scientific misconduct’, should be exposed and, even better, face criminal charges of fraud.

I for one am grateful to the New York Times, to the Public Library of Science Medicine, to medical ethics reporter Stuart Laidlaw at the Toronto Star, and to other science journalists for first uncovering and, more importantly, continuing to harp on the practice of medical ghostwriting. I’d love to believe that this exposure might mean the end of medical ghostwriting and the swift punishment of the guilty.

But sadly, I recall this axiom from my corporate PR days: “Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish wrapping.”  Let’s hope that’s not true here.

© 2009  Carolyn Thomas   http://www.myheartsisters.org

Read more about the subject of medical ghostwriting (written by the actual people whose real names appear next to the content.) See also:


December 15, 2011 (via Bloomberg Business Week): 

Pfizer, the world’s largest drugmaker, and its Wyeth and Pharmacia & Upjohn units, have settled almost half of the lawsuits over its menopause drugs and increased the funds set aside to resolve the cases, the company said in a regulatory filing. The suits claimed the companies’ hormone-replacement medicines, including Prempro and Premarin, caused breast cancer, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission filing. Pfizer said it added $68 million to the $772 million it already reserved for the cases.

More than 6 million women took Prempro and related menopause drugs to treat symptoms including hot flashes and mood swings before a 2002 study highlighted their links to cancer. Wyeth’s sales of the medicines, which are still on the market, exceeded $2 billion before the release of the Women’s Health Initiative study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

At the height of the litigation, Pfizer faced more than 10,000 claims that its menopause drugs caused breast cancer, according to lawyers for former users.

Earlier this month, a Philadelphia jury ordered the Pfizer units to pay $72.6 million in compensatory damages to three women who blamed the drugs for their breast cancers. Pfizer agreed to settle the case before jurors were asked to decide whether the company should face punitive damages. Terms of the settlements weren’t released.

2 thoughts on “What if everybody just started telling the truth about medical ghostwriting?

  1. This is dreadful – such a shocking ghostwriting reality that somehow has been allowed to happen. Surely journal editors and physicians and academics knew this was going on for years – why didn’t they come forward to ‘name and shame’ the guilty parties? Keep up the good work here, and Happy New Year to you.


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