For years, Barbara Sherwin was a prominent hormone researcher and McGill University psychology professor. She was best known for her work as Canada Research Chair in Hormones, Brain, and Cognition – a role that garnered McGill $1.4 million in federal funding.
That’s until 2009, when it was revealed that her name, and her name alone, had appeared on an article which was was in fact co-written by DesignWrite, a company hired by the drug corporation Wyeth to promote hormone replacement therapy.
The article, published in a respected academic journal, was about pharmacological treatments for age-related memory loss.
Although McGill refuses to release the results of its two-year investigation, a professor involved in the case told Maclean’s that Sherwin had been reprimanded, but was cleared of accusations of academic misconduct.
“Ghostwriting,” as it is commonly known, occurs when researchers lend their names (and hence their credibility) to articles to which they did not contribute substantially. Instead, these articles are usually written, by firms hired by pharmaceutical companies, and often contain research or opinions favourable to the products sold by those companies. A 2009 study by The New York Times calculated that around 7.8 per cent of articles published in leading medical journals in the previous year had been ghostwritten.
Medical professionals often rely on scholarship to verify the effectiveness of their treatments, and investigate new developments in medicine. Academic research is also commonly used as evidence of the effectiveness and safety of drugs that are being challenged in court.
The issue has garnered more attention in recent years, after it played a role in high-profile cases involving well-known drugs, such as Vioxx, Neurontin, Oxycontin, Paxil, Zoloft.
It was through 15 ghostwritten articles that Pfizer, for instance, promoted the utilization of Neurontin (a drug originally developed as an anticonvulsant, for use by epileptics) in the treatment of bipolar disorder. The device paid off: from 1995 to 2003 the sales of Neurontin increased more than twenty-fold. After a boy with bipolar disorder who was prescribed the drug committed suicide, a whistleblower revealed the company’s use of ghostwriters. Pfizer pleaded guilty to two felonies, paying about $430 million in penalties for using fraudulent research to promote the use of Neurontin for unapproved uses.
All major medical journals and academic institutions, including U of T, have guidelines decrying the practice of ghostwriting. The practice is forbidden under the Framework to Address Allegations of Research Misconduct, which also addresses plagiarism and conflict of interest.
Trudo Lemmens, a professor at the law faculty and a leading figure in raising awareness of academic ghostwriting, says the university “could state more clearly in [the Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters] that involvement in ghostwritten publications is academic misconduct.”
Lemmens says that, although universities have a duty to protect their faculty, when it comes to accusations of bias or misrepresentation of published data, “academic institutions should investigate thoroughly, since [the] integrity of publications goes to the heart of the integrity of the academic enterprise.”
The university’s AVP Research, Peter Lewis, believes that the University’s existing measures are adequate – equally stringent for both faculty and students.
“The university investigates all allegations of research misconduct as outlined in the Framework to Address Allegations of Research Misconduct,” he said.
Concerning the role of the interaction between pharmaceutical companies and the university, Lewis stated that “receiving support from any source, including pharmaceutical companies, is bound by the policies and procedures of the university, which we believe are adequate to ensure that the academic integrity of our programs are well protected.”
U of T is playing a leading role in the campaign against ghostwriting. The first international conference on ghostwriting was recently hosted jointly by the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, Centre for Ethics, Joint Centre for Bioethics, and Centre for Innovation, Law and Policy.
Professor Lemmens and law professor Simon Stern recently co-authored an article for PloS Medicine, a medical journal, on the possibility of making guest authors liable for ghostwritten articles. In the article, they acknowledge the widespread academic concern over the issue, but note that “professional organizations have so far failed to issue serious sanctions in the rare cases when an organization has looked into allegations of authorship violations.”
Lemmens and Stern argue that censoring academics, rather than deep-pocketed pharmaceutical companies, will deter professors from ghostwriting.
Though there have been many lawsuits against drug companies whose were found to have promoted their porducts through ghostwriting, few researchers have been criticized or publicly investigated.
In the United States, the Project on Government Oversight has written a letter of complaint to President Obama criticizing the University of Pennsylvania for not sanctioning the chairman of its psychiatry department for lending his name to an editorial ghostwritten by a medical company, and a psychiatrist at UPenn is accusing his department of widespread contribution to ghostwritten articles.