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Full Disclosure: Follow the Rules and Avoid the Ghostwriting Walk of Shame

Full Disclosure: Follow the Rules and Avoid the Ghostwriting Walk of Shame

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On Tuesday, Antidote proposed a new version of the popular dating guide The Rules for academics interested in working with pharmaceutical companies. Here are a few more lessons to be learned from the experience of psychology professor Barbara Sherwin, whom McGill University recently reprimanded for claiming to have written an article on drug therapy for memory loss that was, in fact, written by a pharma-sponsored ghostwriter. The Rules helped a commoner marry a prince. Let's hope these rules lead to more successful unions between academia and the pharmaceutical industry.

Always pay for your own dinner. Because Sherwin apparently never asked how her new found ghostwriting friend Karen Mittleman made a living, she made some incorrect assumptions. "Several years later, in 1998, Mittleman called Sherwin to ask if she wanted to write a paper for the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society at the invitation of the journal's editor," Julie Belluz wrote for Maclean's.

Sherwin claimed that Mittleman offered to take Sherwin's notes on hormone therapy's ability to improve memory and turn it into a review article. "'I was completely under the impression that [Mittleman] was working for the journal, that it was the journal who hired her.'"

Most veteran researchers would know that journals do not hire writers to finesse a researcher's work. In fact, it is usually the researcher who has to pay the journal in order to get something published. One call to the journal would have revealed that DesignWrite and Mittleman had not been hired by the journal.

If anyone is helping you conceive, research, write, or edit a journal article, you should know how they are being paid, and, frankly, how you are being paid. Don't just take a check from some seemingly disinterested third party and assume the money came from the Research Fairy. And never work hand-in-hand with someone unless you understand how they are being funded and what they are trying to achieve. You may be great partners with similar aims, or you may have conflicting agendas.

If things don't go the way you planned, keep the blame to a minimum. Sherwin has said repeatedly that the memory loss review article that appeared in the Journal of the American Society of Geriatrics was the only piece she signed that was ghostwritten, blaming Mittleman for tricking her.

And yet, records from the Drug Industry Document Archive show that multiple writers and editors at DesignWrite were working with Sherwin. During one exchange between Mittleman and another ghostwriter working on a piece for Sherwin to sign, Mittleman wrote of Sherwin, "She's really great to work with and I told her that you might be contacting her if you needed direction."

 In October 2001, more than a year after the first article had appeared, during a conference call, DesignWrite staff and Wyeth officials discussed a piece Sherwin was writing for the journal Endocrine Reviews. The minutes note that DesignWrite "will e-mail Barbara to see if she needs any assistance with additional comments by reviewers."

In an interesting coincidence, the participants in the meeting also discussed one of the first articles to make a strong case against ghostwriting, June W. Reidenberg's Unmasking ghostwriters in the journal Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics. The minutes say that DesignWrite "will continue its current policy of acknowledging the contribution of the primary writer/editor in any clinical trial or review paper."

In her interview with Maclean's, Sherwin heaped more blame on Mittleman. "She volunteered help, which I forcefully declined," she said. "She nonetheless sent some unsolicited text to me, which I destroyed upon receipt and never spoke to her again."

Avoid making the same mistakes twice. For an article about Sherwin's reprimand by McGill, Aaron Derfel at the Montreal Gazette asked her about how her latest study was being funded. Even though she had just been embarrassed by a failure to disclose, she "refused to disclose the source of funding for that study," Derfel wrote. "I have no need to go public on who funds that. I don't see the point."

In my next few Full Disclosure posts, I will explore ways the other parties involved in the ghostwriting debacle – universities, pharmaceutical companies, journals, journalists, and the ghostwriters themselves – can help restore the public's faith in scientific publications. Many of you already have sent me some great ideas. Keep them coming via or on Twitter @wheisel.

Related Posts:

Full Disclosure, Part 2: Academics Entering Pharma Partnerships Should Have a Dating Rulebook

Full Disclosure, Part 1: How Do We Fix the Problem of Pharma-Sponsored Ghostwriting?

Photo credit: striatic via Flickr

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