Ghost un-authorships

I’m currently reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma, in which he documents all the naughty things done by the Pharma industry. One of the many infelicities he mentions is their habit of ghostwriting academic papers, and then asking an academic to put their name on the paper (whilst hiding the involvement of the company). This is obviously a bit naughty, so the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) wrote up some criteria for authorship:

The ICMJE recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:

Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
Final approval of the version to be published; AND
Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

and anyone who doesn’t meet all of those criteria shouldn’t be an authors, but should be acknowledge. Goldacre, bless his little cotton socks, points out that this means that many people who contributed (e.g. those who ran the trials, and the people who wrote the paper – in other words the people from the bad pharma company) aren’t credited as authors. Which is true, but he ignores the other side of the coin. A couple of pages before discussing the ICMJE guidelines he quotes an academic, Dr. Lisse, who told the New York Times

“Merck designed the trial, paid for the trial, ran the trial,” Dr. Lisse said. “Merck came to me after the study was completed and said, ‘We want your help to work on the paper.’ The initial paper was written at Merck, and then it was sent to me for editing.” … “Basically, I went with the cardiovascular data that was presented to me,”

Now, I’m not sure this qualifies Dr. Lisse to be an author under the guidelines, so perhaps he should be removed as an author. Which then raises an interesting idea. What if none of the authors fulfils the criteria? Could we then see the authorless paper?

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2 Responses to Ghost un-authorships

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Phama’ is an excellent book and great for opening the eyes of people who don’t know about the tricks that the Big Pharma companies pull. An interesting web-site that I have recently signed up to is “The Conversation” (Australian and US sibling sites also exist), which includes a ‘Health and Medicine’ category. There, the academics posting articles have to declare all relevant interests; perhaps academic papers should do the same (in something like the words of your second italicised section).

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    I think the real issue is that “criteria for authorship” is designed to prevent people who DON’T deserve it from being labeled as authors. In these cases, we have a reversed situation, where those that do the studies are hiding in plain site and avoiding being tagged as authors. This is just as serious a problem (if not more so) than cases where people who don’t deserve it are included as authors.