By Jonathan Benson
Academics who lend their names to Big Pharma ghostwriting schemes should be charged with fraud, say university professors
A college student who pays his friend to write a paper for him is guilty of plagiarism — and if he is caught, he could receive a failing grade or even be expelled from school. But when drug companies secretly pay doctors or academics to pretend as though they wrote journal-published studies actually written by Big Pharma ghostwriters, it is considered a mere “marketing strategy.” But two university professors are working to change this injustice by pushing for such cheats to be prosecuted for fraud.
“It’s a prostitution of their academic standing, and it undermines the integrity of the entire academic publication system” said Professor Trudo Lemmens, a Faculty of Law professor at the University of Toronto (UT). He and Professor Simon Stern, also from UT, rightly believe that taking credit for a journal article written by someone else constitutes criminal activity, and should be considered fraud under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).
“Guest authorship is a disturbing violation of academic integrity standards, which form the basis of scientific reliability,” said the two in a recent article published in the journal PLoS Medicine. “Pharmaceutical sponsors borrow the names of academic experts precisely because of the value and prestige attached to the presumed integrity and independence of academic researchers.”
Back in 2008, for instance, it was revealed that Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (now part of Pfizer) paid ghostwriters to compose articles hyping the supposed benefits of its hormone replacement therapy (HRT) drug Prempro, and solicited academics to then stamp their names on them claiming authorship. The forged articles then appeared in prestigious journals where thousands of doctors ended up reading and absorbing the information as if it was independent, evidence-based medicine.
If academics who participate in ghostwriting fraud were held accountable in the way Lemmens and Stern are suggesting, it would have the potential to revolutionize the way drugs are approved, as well as the way drug litigation is handled in court. No longer would drug companies be able to use fraudulent medical research to convince the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve a drug, and Big Pharma lawyers would no longer be able to use ghostwritten studies as court evidence to defend the safety of harmful drugs.
“[Ghostwritten studies] are often used in litigation to support the manufacturer’s arguments about a drug’s efficacy and safety, or to establish a record of scientific acceptance for Daubert purposes, or to credentialize an expert witness,” added Lemmens and Stern. “Each of those uses, if attempted by a party that had helped to create the article, could risk sanction.”