Monday, Aug. 24, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.
A student who hands in a term paper under his own name when in fact it had been written by someone else has committed a serious breach of ethics.
The same is true for doctors who allow their bylines to appear above articles published in medical journals when in fact the articles were largely produced by ghostwriters pushing a product.
According to stories published Wednesday by The New York Times and the Associated Press, many doctors have been persuaded by drug companies to cooperate on such articles.
A “sophisticated ghostwriting program” used by London-based drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline to promote an antidepressant pill called Paxil was an example given by AP. Although the company says it has discontinued the ghostwriting program, the news service obtained court documents showing that it had used this marketing tactic.
The danger here is that doctors are trusted. Readers who see a doctor’s name atop an article about a certain drug are apt to believe what is being stated. They would certainly be more skeptical if they knew the article was actually written by people working for the company that makes the drug.
Ghostwritten articles on Paxil, which highlighted doctors as their authors, appeared in five medical journals from 2000 to 2002. AP reported that today hundreds of people are pressing personal injury and wrongful death suits against GlaxoSmithKline, claiming the company downplayed the risks of Paxil.
The Times disclosed that there is “a growing body of evidence suggesting that doctors at some of the nation’s top medical schools have been attaching their names and lending their reputations to scientific papers that were drafted by ghostwriters working for drug companies — articles that were carefully calibrated to help the manufacturers sell more products.”
There are no laws prohibiting ghostwriting. But there is no question that the widespread practice is unethical and that universities and medical associations should crack down. We agree with a bioethics expert at Duke University who told the Times, “To blow this off is not acceptable.”