Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Am I missing something here?

This is not exactly new news -- IIRC, the New England Journal of Medicine had an expose about it a while back -- but friend M.A.R. draws our attention to a Wall Stree Journal article by Anna Wilde Matthews that reminds us it still goes on.

We're talking about drug companies writing articles for medical journals, and paying academic specialists to pretend to be the authors. We aren't talking here about research reports -- the issues with drug companies running clinical trials and, in one way or another, managing the study design, analysis and reporting to appear favorable to their products have gotten plenty of attention here already. In those cases, the academic authors generally did really work on the studies, but the concern is that their conclusions may be influenced (or worse) by the funding source. The kinds of articles we're talking about here are clinical reviews, what you might call "how to" articles for physicians that give recommendations for use of particular drugs. (Matthews somewhat conflates these two situations, I am drawing the distinction.)

When they are caught out, the putative authors of these ghostwritten sales pitches generally claim that they reviewed the pieces and approved of their contents. The drug companies claim that these eminent professors are too busy to write a whole lot and maybe aren't the world's greatest writers anyway, so the practice helps humanity get the benefit of more of their mighty brainpower.

I say pish tosh and poppycock. If a student hands in a paper under his or her own name, that she or he did not write, we expel that student. It's called academic dishonesty. Most scientific papers are team written but the names of all the people who made substantive contributions are required by journal policy to be disclosed and appropriate authorship credit given. I'd feel a whole lot different about a clincal review knowing it was written by an employee of a drug company than I would if I thought it was just written by Dr. Bigname Knozall. And by the way, publication is the main currency of academia, determining promotions and tenure.

If students are expelled for doing what Dr. Knozall has done, Dr. Knozall should be fired. And oh yeah -- the journal should retract the article, and sue him for fraud.

Don't hold your breath.

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