When college or university students put their names on papers they haven’t written, they’re usually degraded because of plagiarism. But doctors are often recognized for getting credits for papers they don’t write themselves.
This practice of having a medical paper written by someone else is known as medical ghostwriting services, where a ghost does all the work and doesn’t receive credit for it. Instead, a person of respectable standing gets the credit even though their contributions are negligible.
Most drug companies are aware of the fact that readers will more likely trust a paper if it’s written by a physician or scientist instead of them. This is why they hire physicians and doctors to mention their names on papers that a company actually wrote.
There are companies around the globe that help pharma companies write and publish content to shed light on their products and promote them. These companies are known as Medical Education and Communication Companies (MECCs) that drug companies hire to publish their papers in peer-reviewed medical journals.
Drug companies work hand-in-hand with them to plan and write their drafts, whereby MECCs help them with narrative development, expert engagement, and medical writing that sounds a lot like medical ghostwriting.
Ghostwriting, the practice of having an author misrepresent themselves as the author of a scientific paper is a problem that continues to plague scientific research. Peer-reviewed journals do not have specific policies related to ghostwriting, which makes it easy for this practice to infiltrate even the most respected scientific journals.
In the medical sciences, the most common reason that researchers have been known to hire ghostwriters is because of the extreme pressure they’re under to publish papers. The fact that journals don’t typically address the problems of ghostwriting and guest authorship is a problem.
A peer-reviewed journal is supposed to be a source of unbiased information about new research, but this hasn’t stopped pharmaceutical companies from using ghostwriters to produce favorable articles about their drugs.
The problem is exacerbated by differing definitions of what ghostwriting is. According to some companies, ghostwriting does not occur if the named author reviews and makes edits to the paper they supposedly wrote. Given the lack of strict policies surrounding ghostwriting, it’s not surprising how authors and drug companies are rapidly infiltrating even the most respected sources of unbiased information.
If a person or company hires a medical writer to help them with a paper, and the company’s name appears on the paper, it’s not considered ghostwriting. Whereas if a company hires a medical writer or a doctor and if their names don’t appear on the paper, then that would be ghostwriting.
For example, pharmaceutical companies might hire medical communications companies, as mentioned above, to write papers about their drugs and then pay the journal to publish the papers under the name of a doctor or researcher.
Medical ghostwriting is a big problem in the pharmaceutical industry because it’s a legal grey area. Though it’s not illegal in the US, it is frowned upon in the scientific community, primarily if the actual author is not credited for the contribution or if drug companies use biased information to promote their products.
With time, this practice in the medical and scientific community has been exposed by many editors in order to strengthen the editorial policies of medical journals and state strict definitions surrounding ghostwriting.
Though Big Pharma’s influence is widespread, there is hope that peer-reviewed journals will shape solid policies so that they could improve transparency in the scientific community.