Readers generally expect objective information from scientific papers authored by doctors at top medical schools. However, evidence suggests a widespread practice of doctors attaching their names to papers actually written by ghostwriters for drug companies. Often such articles have been written in a way to boost the sales of that company’s product. The articles benefit from the reputation of the doctor whose name is attached to the paper. This practice breaches the public trust and is an issue of medical ethics. It is entrenched at some universities that fail to acknowledge the problem and don’t have rigorous ethics rules for faculty members.
Now the practice has a powerful opponent in Washington. Senator Charles Grassley is pressuring the National Institutes of Health (N.I.H.) to crack down on the practice of ghostwriting. Senator Grassley helps oversee public funding for medical research, and he has been investigating conflicts of interest in medicine. N.I.H. is a chief underwriter for much of the medical research in the U.S., and the research of many top doctors is dependent on federal research grants. Though N.I.H. could be a powerful force in addressing the issue of ghostwriting, it is apparently hesitant to exert its power in that arena. According to an N.I.H. spokesman, ethics policies regarding ghostwriting are the responsibility of universities and other institutions that employ researchers. However, some universities take the position that the integrity of a faculty member’s work is that person’s responsibility. Bioethicists assert that medical schools must be responsible and that publications must explicitly acknowledge any industry support received by writers. Failure to acknowledge that industry support alters the authority of the article and may result in improper reliance on the information, ultimately affecting patient care.
Marketing for large drug companies routinely includes publication of scientific papers in medical journals. Publication of such articles lends weight to claims made by the companies in advertising and promotion of their products. The companies will have article ghostwritten and then invite prominent doctors to "author" the article. Evidence of the practice has come to light during litigation over pharmaceutical products.