Merck's Ghostwriting Scandal

Posted on April 15, 2008

Merck and Co. is in big trouble. The drugmaker hired ghostwriters to pen reports for its drug Vioxx, a painkiller. A new report claims that Merck paid academic scientists money to claim they wrote research articles that were actually ghostwritten by Merck's medical writers who minimized side effects and deaths caused by the drug. Vioxx has been pulled off the market.

Merck called the reports in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association false and misleading. Five writers of the articles were paid consultants for people who sued Merck over Vioxx's heart and stroke risks; the sixth testified about Merck and Vioxx's heart risks before a Senate panel. Merck says those connections makes the reports themselves biased.

While Merck is singled out, the practices are not uncommon, according to JAMA's editors. In an editorial, they urge strict reforms, including a ghostwriting crackdown and requiring all authors to spell out their specific roles. Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, JAMA's editor-in-chief, said those are already policies at JAMA but not at many other journals.

"The manipulation is disgusting. I just didn't realize the extent," she said. The practices outlined in JAMA can lead editors to publish biased research that can result in doctors giving patients improper and even harmful treatment, she said.

So, to sum up: drug companies pay ghostwriters to write academic research papers praising their new drugs, playing fast and loose with the facts and minimizing any negatives the drug may have. These papers are published in serious academic journals, which convinces doctors to prescribe the drugs. This sounds like fraud to us and it certainly helps explain the rash of drugs which were heralded as miracles just before they were pulled off the market.

Ghostwriting the "autobiography" of a celebrity is perfectly acceptable. Ghostwriting a serious research paper doctors will rely on is not.