Problems of Ghost Writing in the Medical Industry


The New York Times had a fabulous article on ghostwriters whom influence medical literature. For those who do not know what ghostwriters are, they are essentially people who write under a made-up name to give credited to another person or entity (e.g. business).

Ghostwriting, also known as having a pen name, has been a common literary technique throughout the ages. There are a variety of reasons why ghostwriting occurs, such as the concealment of identity to protect the true author’s identity, to carry on a literary legacy, or to make the author seem like he or she is something they are really not.

The later of these examples can be more serious in the medical industry since life literally hangs in the balance. The benefit of ghostwriting is the concealment of identity, such as a doctor who writes under a false name in order to expose the truth about malpractice at a clinic and to preserve their reputation.

However, doctors rely on unbiased and accurate medical & research information. If they read an article that is essentially a paid endorsement of a product without knowing that it is biased (specifically emphasizing the benefits and leaving out the side effects), they could very likely make poor decisions in the future with patient care that they would otherwise not make, especially if they did not know that the article was slanted in favor of the company who paid for the article to be written.

In the case of Wyeth, a pharmaceutical company that produces Premarin and Prempro, hormone replacement drugs, the company paid a medical communications firm to write favorable review articles which appeared in 18 professional medical journals. The articles were given credit to top physicians who contributed little to nothing in the article (this raises several ethical questions by itself).

Is this a problem? You bet! Court document suggest that this practice of ghostwriting in the medical industry is wide spread.

“It’s almost like steroids and baseball,” said Dr. Joseph S. Ross, an assistant professor of geriatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, who has conducted research on ghostwriting. “You don’t know who was using and who wasn’t; you don’t know which articles are tainted and which aren’t.”

Read the original NY Times article.


About repplinger

John has served as a Reference Librarian at Willamette University since 2002. He is the liaison to the Science Departments, and is responsible for maintaining the collections related to the life & physical sciences. His research interests range over the entire spectrum of libraries and information sciences, but includes: - Google and its influence on information & society - The Internet's influence on information seeking & sharing behaviors - Trends of scholarly communication - Electronic learning environments - Traditional pedagogy - GIS use in academic libraries

Posted on August 5, 2009, in Libraries, Scholarly Commun. and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I’m glad you are covering this. I and every other patient out there should be spitting mad at this unethical practice. I too covered the New York Times story in my blog Heart Sisters at

    I wanted to clarify the difference, however, between ghostwriting and having a pen name. Not the same thing at all! A pen name is a made-up name by the actual author of the work – only one person involved (such as Samuel Clemens who used the name Mark Twain on his writing).

    Ghostwriting on the other hand is a work written by one person but with another person’s name on the work as author or co-author, thus at least two or more people involved. Medical ghostwriting (also called “scientific misconduct”) is when a drug company or medical device manufacturer arranges for an academic to lend his/her name to a scientific paper that the academic has NOT written, for the sole purpose of getting the otherwise UNpublishable paper accepted in a medical journal – and thus increasing exposure and sales of their drug or product.

    However you define it – it stinks.

    Thanks for spreading the word!
    Carolyn Thomas

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