Just when we thought things couldn’t get any more slimy in the wonderful world of Big Pharma-funded medical journal articles, along comes last week’s editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Their September 9th editorial claims that somewhere between 50% and 100% of articles on drugs that appear in journals are ghostwritten, according to Dr. David Healy, a psychiatrist at the University of Cardiff in Wales and a critic of the drug industry’s influence on physicians’ drug prescribing habits. Dr. Healy further claims:
“Ghostwriting ‘crept up on’ the medical profession and became so common by the mid-90s that even senior researchers came to accept it as an ethical practice. Other critics of the practice agree, claiming that many researchers will put their name on a document as primary author even if they just edited it — or only read it and made no changes.
“If you have people like me who say they won’t do this, the pharmaceutical industry can easily go elsewhere and find a person who will.”
“Unless something changes, according to Dr. Sergio Sismondo of Queen’s University in Kingston, there is little incentive for drug companies, researchers or medical journals to do anything at all about ghostwriting. He wrote an article for the journal Academic Matters (May 2009) arguing that medical science is now for sale, and that concern about plagiarism is about fairness. Some people’s work is exploited while other people gain unearned credit.
“Dr. Sismondo added: ‘The pharmaceutical industry, always an innovator, has developed a different form of plagiarism, involving only willing participants.’ “
Ah, those innovative drug companies!
Now some medical journal editors are apparently worried about even attempting to crack down on academics and researchers who are in bed with the drug companies.
Dr. Benjamin Djulbegovic of the University of South Florida told his Vancouver audience at the International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication:
“Major medical journals face an inherent conflict of interest when trying to ensure the integrity of their published findings.”
He cited the Journal of the American Medical Association as an example.
In 2005, JAMA decided to impose stricter editorial guidelines prohibiting drug companies from the fanciful embroidery of their medical-test results in order to favour their drugs. JAMA then saw a 21% drop in industry-financed research after the journal began requiring that all data in drug company-sponsored medical trials must be independently verified by university researchers.
Study findings suggest JAMA could face “significant financial pressure” to abandon the policy, given the reliance of medical journals on corporate dollars.
And speaking of those corporate dollars, let’s not forget that The New England Journal of Medicine, for example, sold 929,400 reprints of a single (ghostwritten) research article about the painkiller Vioxx (mostly sold to the drug’s manufacturer Merck for its own drug reps to distribute to physicians on their detailing routes as part of the sales pitch). These reprints brought in more than $697,000 in revenue for the journal.
That’s what I’d call “significant financial pressure”.