Monday, October 18, 2010

Ghostwriting and Full Disclosure: When the Critics Get Caught

A friend and I were discussing the problem of ghostwriting in industry – she was lamenting its demise. My friend, a journalist by profession, didn’t see a conflict of interest problem – she saw a conflict with clarity problem. She had worked for one of the major pharma houses, and one of her jobs was helping a researcher with writing his papers. Scientists generally can’t write, she said.

Anybody who writes for a living who’s seen what a researcher can do to the English language will agree with her. By definition, a ghostwriter is someone who writes for another – he or she doesn’t alter thoughts, tone, meaning, wit. The ghostwriter just makes the prose clear. BioPharma Advisors even uses ghostwriters for some of its own work.

Which brings us to the Wyeth, Prempro, Adriane Fugh-Berman, PLoS Medicine, conflict-of-interest drama. Wyeth (now part of Pfizer) is being sued by women who took the HRT Prempo and contracted breast cancer. The drug maker recently was slammed by Fugh-Berman in PLoS for hiring a communications firm, DesignWrite, to “ghostwrite” articles that touted Prempro’s benefits and smoothed over the risks. These documents – more than ghostwritten -- had been released as part of the court record.

But it was no coincidence that Fugh-Berman wrote the piece, and that PLoS published it. Fugh-Berman, at the time her article was written, was on the payroll of the plaintiff’s law firm. That fact wasn’t disclosed in the article. Another hidden bit of info: PLoS had sued Wyeth for the DesignWrite documents.

Fugh-Berman told Pharmalot that she had never made a secret about her status as an expert witness, and would clarify her position. PLoS editor Ginny Barbour told Pharmalot, “We intervened in the Prempro case solely because of our interest in unmasking this [ghostwriting] practice. We have no professional, financial, legal or other relationship with the plaintiffs or their lawyers in any of the cases that Wyeth is defending, or in any other past or ongoing legal case." Checking Google, very few media outlets covered this part of the story, compared to the splash the PLoS article made. We continue to lament the media’s current lack of parity in covering industry.

The DesignWrite articles ran between 1997 and 2003. Did Wyeth do the right thing? No. Are there reasons that nearly all crimes have a statute of limitations? Yes.

Pharma has said that ghostwriting, as done in the past, will stop. And it should in the context in which it is currently practiced, for at least two reasons: One, it’s not completely transparent. Two, as long as pharma continues to make itself a target, it will be guilty until proven innocent, and its research will continue to be viewed skeptically, and that affects us all.

But please, pharma members – for your researchers who can’t write, hire an editor, and give the guy or gal credit at the article’s end for work done.

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