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PLoS Medicine and the New York Times victorious in court; Public will have access to ghostwriting documents

Guest blog by Adriane Fugh-Berman

PLoS Medicine and the New York Times victorious in court; Public will have access to ghostwriting documents

A duo of standard-setting publications has achieved a stunning success in the battle to end industry tampering of medical literature. Fifteen hundred documents that contain unprecedented detail on how articles highlighting specific marketing messages are strategically placed in the medical literature were released last weekend to PLoS Medicine and the New York Times. The two publications, acting as “intervenors” in litigation against menopausal hormone manufacturers by women who developed breast cancer while taking hormones, argued that documents proving ghostwriting that were placed under seal should be made available to the public. As PLoS Medicine Chief Editor Ginny Barbour stated in the motion, ghostwriting “gives corporate research a veneer of independence and credibility” and may “substantially distort the scientific record”; “threaten[ing] the validity and credibility of medical knowledge.” U.S. District Judge William Wilson, in Little Rock, Arkansas, granted the motion to make discovery materials public on July 25, 2009.

While ghostwriters for celebrity autobiographies may do readers a service by rendering a non-writer’s story readable, the ghostwriters who haunt medical journals represent the views of product manufacturers rather than the academic “authors” whose names decorate the articles. The newly exposed documents include correspondence among academic faculty, freelance writers, ‘medical education’ companies and Wyeth, and include records of payment to ghostwriters and ghostwriting firms. This treasure trove details the blow-by-blow process by which marketing messages were inserted into articles in the medical literature to promote unproven benefits of Premarin and Prempro while trivializing the risk of breast cancer.

Competing interest statement: Adriane Fugh-Berman has been a paid expert witness on behalf of plaintiffs in the multidistrict litigation against hormone manufacturers referred to in this piece.

Read the New York Times story which was published on Wednesday, 5th August and the related documents detailing Wyeth’s use of ghostwriters. An earlier post on Speaking of Medicine outlines the successful intervention in the court case and provides the press release from Public Justice, the law firm representing PLoS Medicine in the case.

  1. Is it possible to have a list of authors who were “ghost written” – i.e. those who allowed their names to be tagged onto a publication?

    That way we will know to evaluate articles written by them extra carefully.

  2. Hearty congratulations to PLoS for this expose. Most of us in Science have always believed that there has been ghost writing by the major Pharma, and consequently there has been a tremendous of twisting of facts as presented to the Scientific community. This judgement will hopefully be a landmark in health research.

  3. I remember when certain medical journal articles had to be marked “advertisements” because the author [or someone assisting the author] paid some of the printing/paper costs. It might be a useful demand to make again for articles that represent industry-sponsored work.

    Currently the authorship rules used by journals mean that someone who puts concepts into words [what counts as “authorship” in most ordinary situations] does not count as an “author” for scientific purposes. Maybe we should revisit that — at least for the sake of increasing transparency. Let’s be open about who did what, where the money came from, and let’s extend that to all the people who write for a living — even if their words end up coming out of the mouths of politicians or pundits.

  4. The blog visualizes as well describes about the victorious PLoS Medicine as well the New York Times in court. I like this post.

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