Monday, August 24, 2009

The Responsibilities of Authorship

One of the most difficult parts of our investigation of scientific misconduct by Hendrik Schön was assessing the role of Bertram Batlogg. There were no accusations that he, or any of Hendrik's several other co-authors, participated in the fraud. But Bertram's role was special, and our report commented on that.

Partially it was Bertram's position, at first, as Hendrik's advisor. But more importantly, Bertram, as the senior member of the team and an established and respected experimentalist, brought to the work a sense of authority that Hendrik alone could not have hoped for. Many members of the community and journal editors felt that, by putting his name on the work, Bertram was standing behind the validity of the results.

After the errors in those results became clear, Bertram did not lose his job at ETH Zurich or his grants. Nonetheless, his dream of completing his career as a respected authority for physics in Europe was irrevocably damaged, and he suffered great personal anguish. Some of his colleagues still blame him for failing to live up to the expectations of a co-author.

This background makes the recent revelations about "ghostwriting" of medical articles particularly shocking. People have complained about the practice before, but recent PLoS Medicine and The New York Times recently joined in a lawsuit that documents how pharmaceutical companies have covertly choreographed multiple journal articles supporting their products. (On Friday, PLoS Medicine made this discovered material available online.) As part of this process, for example, companies selected to manage the publications sometimes wrote review articles even before the authors were determined! These authors were later paid to put their authority behind an article that they had not written and may not have even carefully reviewed.

A blog entry from PLoS Medicine summarizes how one of those companies described it to potential clients:

"The first step is to choose the target journal best suited to the manuscript's content. …We will then analyze the data and write the manuscript, recruit a suitable well-recognized expert to lend his/her name as author of the document, and secure his/her approval of its content."

This is not ghostwriting. It is fraud.

Typically these articles are not summaries of ongoing research by the investigator in question. Instead, they are review articles, for which the experience and judgment of the author is ostensibly invoked to help sort through the complicated and possibly conflicting results that have previously published. The tedious process of reviewing of the literature is the content of the article, and cannot be outsourced to an someone hired by a drug company.

Moreover, unlike Schön's work or cases of "honorary co-authorship," in these medical reviews there is often no other author who holds primary responsibility.

Most troubling, the reason the paper even exists is specifically to skew treatment choices in favor a company's products, rather than the medical needs of patients.

There must be zero tolerance of this practice by the universities and teaching hospitals that employ these "authors," by the agencies that fund them, and by the journals that publish their work. Even in the absence of formal censure, though, they should be treated by their colleagues as disgraces to the profession. Which they are.

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