Medical journal resorts to sleuthing to sniff out ghostwriters


magn glass3Here’s one possible solution to the fraudulent practice of medical ghostwriting that seems so easy, I’m wondering why all medical journal editors are not already doing it, given the current bad press garnered by the Wyeth Pharmaceuticals medical ghostwriting scandal, among many others. Editor-in-chief of the Journal of Managed Care Pharmacy Dr. Frederic Curtiss has told Reuters Health that data attached to documents created in Microsoft Word have allowed him to discover which articles submitted to his journal may have been written by ghostwriters hired by drug companies. 

When documents are saved in Word, the software attaches additional information, called metadata, which identifies who created the document. Subsequent edits or changes made by anybody else (like the medical school academics and researchers who fraudulently claim that they are the real authors) can also be identified. Curtiss estimates that every third manuscript he receives has metadata that does not match the article’s listed authors. 

According to presentations at the Sixth International Congress of Peer Review and Biomedical Publication in Vancouver last week, at least 12% of research articles in top medical journal studies failed to disclose authors who had “contributed substantially to the work”. Translated, this means that the lead author who claimed to be the author – wasn’t.  It likely also means that a drug company hired a medical ghostwriter to write a positive journal article about their drug.

But think about it:  if the experience of Dr. Curtiss with his one individual medical journal is that one third of submissions come in with undisclosed authors hidden in the metadata, why would we believe that only 12% of all other medical journal submissions do likewise?

And why aren’t journal editors going one step further?  Even if their metadata sleuthing uncovers an undisclosed original author, what good does it do to insist that this person’s name now be included among the other names rightfully listed as study authors?  The very fact that the journal submission was hiding anything – particularly a secret author – is grounds for rejection of the entire article, isn’t it? 

Dr. Curtiss, please tell me that this is already happening.

Read the Reuters article See also: Medical Ghostwriting: If You’re Not Alarmed, Maybe You’re Just Not Paying Attention


3 thoughts on “Medical journal resorts to sleuthing to sniff out ghostwriters

  1. If this is so obvious – e.g. you and others were able to find out about this simple techie step – why on earth isn’t this standard practice for all medical journal editors?

    Makes it entirely too easy to suspect they are all in on the fraud.

  2. Sounds like a no brainer to me, too. Yet another illustration of how journal editors cannot possibly be serious about stopping this practice once and for all.

    It’s revolting to see “professionals” and I use that term generously standing by, fully aware yet clearly uninterested in doing the right thing because it may mean putting their jobs on the line. Instead, medical journal editors who do nothing to stop medical ghostwriting – and I believe it is entirely possible to do so – are rubber-stamping the practice with their ineptitude.

  3. This is too easy. Let’s enforce these kind of sleuthing guidelines for all journal editors. No more excuses. This is embarrassing already.

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