Ghostwriting: 'What's the Harm?'

By JANET MOORE, Star Tribune

Ever since the Toronto Star broke the story of a McGill University professor's involvment with ghostwriters, there has been a growing debate across Canada about the practice.

In an unsigned editorial put online this morning, the Montreal Gazette asks, "What's the harm?" Afterall, it says, there's no evidence Sherwin intended to deceive anyone and the article in question was in line with the rest of her scholarship.
It's an important question. Across the country in Victoria, BC, the Time Colonist offers an answer:

Why is that important? First, DesignWrite is paid by pharmaceutical giant Wyeth to promote its drugs. But there was no mention of those co-authors in the article. That could mislead readers into believing the report was independent, when it was not.

Second, the article concluded that estrogen therapy helps prevent memory loss. But Wyeth is a producer of estrogen-based medications. In the research field, such an obvious conflict of interest could invalidate the findings, if it were known.

The danger, in other words, isn't just that bad science gets portrayed as good, but that good science gets dismissed as tainted. Both outcomes are dangerous to public health.

The Gazette seems to understand this, too, concluding its editorial with a discussion of the importance of the issue and a comparison to politicians -- who rarely write the speeches they give.

And this is different from writing speeches for politicians. The people who do that are usually partisans who share the views of their employer and who, in fact, might well be part of the team developing both policy and political strategy. In other words, both writer and reader share essentially the same goal.

That is very much not the case with a drug-company employee and a scientist. The aims they serve are quite different and often opposed. And maintaining that difference is often quite literally a matter of life and death. Sherwin's "error" suggests that at the very least, academics need to update and clarify the ethics that guide them.

McGill bioethicist Margaret Somerville joins in the debate, as well, in a column in the Gazzette. She questions whether we can judge researchers who used ghostwriters a decade (or less) ago based on the ethics of today, quoting British Lord Denning saying that "you can't look at 1956 events with 1964 glasses."

Just as the law evolves and science evolves, so too ethics evolves and something we now rightly regard as unethical might not have been so characterized in the past.

Much has changed in the last few years with respect to the ethics of academic publishing. Practices that were considered normal just a few years ago, such as placing on research articles the names of people who did not participate directly in the research (for instance, a principal investigator whose only connection with the research was that his research grant supported it) are now considered unethical.

She does not, however, make the case that using drug company paid ghostwriters was considered acceptable in 2000 when Sherwin's article appeared -- or in 1964, for that matter.

Meanwhile, the medical freelancers whose ranks make up the anonymous ghostwriters, have begun to speak up. One, Kate Johnson of Montreal, cautions in her blog about "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" by letting the ghostwriting scandal end the practice of researchers using editors to smooth out their prose.

As a medical editor, I help researchers with their writing - enabling them to communicate the results of their studies to the wider medical community.

This is not ghostwriting.

But in their haste to distance themselves from this ghostwriting exposé of the pharmaceutical industry, medical schools and academic journals may intimidate researchers from seeking the appropriate help of professional writers and editors.
In doing so they risk losing a great deal of valuable research done by brilliant investigators who can't write.

No reporter would discount the role of a good editor. Any story that appears in a newspaper has been edited two or three or more times before it appears in print. Johnson is right, this is not ghostwriting.

Ghostwriting happens when an anonymous writer prepares an article that is edited by a respected researcher in the field. The editor's name then appears on the paper as author. 

No newspaper I know assigns bylines that way.

In a letter to the Boston Globe in response to an editorial about ghostwriting, medical freelancer Judith Pepin likewise sees nothing wrong with researchers getting help with their writing -- a skill she says many don't have.

I agree wholeheartedly that ghostwriting (undisclosed drafting of a manuscript) is a clear violation of ethics. However, acknowledged medical writing help is not ghostwriting.

In addition to assistance with writing, editing, and fact-finding, the medical writer lends valuable expertise to the lead author in the stylistic requirements of the many scientific journals to which manuscripts are submitted for publication.

This is a collaborative effort between the writer and the authors, and in no way, should be lumped in the category of "ghostwriting."
Also a good point. Editing is not the same as ghostwriting.

But it can still be wrong if the editor is getting money from the people whose products are being written about.

Collaboration is at the heart of good science. More people involved in the writing of a scientific article is can be a good thing, if it ensures that more facts and possibilities are brought to the table, discussed and presented to the reader. 

It only becomes an issue when some of those at the table have a possible conflict of interest, and it isn't disclosed.