File this under “does no one any good”. As many of you will have seen, JAMA just published a report on various studies that Merck has conducted and published over the years on Vioxx. The conclusion was that the company basically wrote the papers, and then went shopping for well-known academic names as authors. No, this one isn’t going to be good for anyone involved.
There seems little doubt that this practice does go on. I’ve never been in a position to see it happen, but it’s been reported for years. There are whole companies whose business is “scientific writing and communication”, and some of these seem to be in the business of turning studies into manuscripts, with no mention of their work in the final version. (The JAMA article found evidence of this sort of thing as well).
Scientific authorship is a messy business, true, and there are a lot of journal articles whose entire list of authors might have trouble with a pop quiz on the details of the paper. It is, in my mind, perfectly acceptable for one or two people on the author list to do most of the writing, with everyone else contributing suggestions and revisions. That’s how every paper I’ve been on (or written) has been done. But the worst of these Merck cases look like a search for a lead author or co-author, which is just unacceptable.
At least one of the authors named in the article is disputing its conclusions. Stephen Ferris of NYU says that he was no figurehead, and calls the JAMA paper “egregious” for having done no follow-up with the people it names. I suspect that there will be others in his category – the JAMA offices are getting a lot of testy e-mails this week, I’m sure. Of course, even the guilty are going to be sending them, since no one wants acquiesce to the label of “paid shill for publication”.
And that’s the problem. I can believe that the JAMA authors (Joseph Ross of Mt. Sinai et al.) could have cast their net too widely as they dug through the piles of discovery documents from the Vioxx litigation. But, unfortunately, I can’t believe that all their examples are mistaken. Enough chicanery goes on with authorship in purely academic settings – I can well believe that it happens in industry/academic collaborations.
But that’s the problem right there: the idea behind such a collaboration is, at least partly, to lend credence to the study’s results. Rightly or wrongly, industry studies on marketed drugs are perceived as needing the help. It’s the money involved, of course. When an industrial group publishes a paper on cell physiology or on a new method for cleaning up palladium-catalyzed reactions, no one doubts the results. But when it’s something that might have a direct and immediate effect on millions of dollars in revenue, doubts naturally set in. They always will, even if the research is beyond reproach.
And that’s why this ghostwriting business just makes the problem worse. I haven’t seen anyone suggesting that the Merck studies themselves are bogus – they had damn well better not be – but by playing games with the external author list, the company invites suspicion. I’m willing to bet that many people outside our industry who have just read the headlines on this story have assumed that the results were cooked up, just like the authorship. This is not what the industry needs. It never has been, and we need it less now than ever.
If we’re going to win back the trust of the general public – which we’ve lost, in case anyone hasn’t noticed – we’re going to have to cut out the shortcuts, stop the doubletalk, and act as if what we’re doing (drug discovery) is something to be proud of. Sure, this is a business – we sell improved health for money, and since it sure costs money to do it, there’s nothing in that transaction to be ashamed about. So why are we acting as if the only way to do business is under the cover of darkness?
We’re not going to have much of a business if these practices keep going on. Want price controls, real industrial-strength ones? Want lots and lots of marketing restrictions? Want the FDA to raise the bar for approval to levels never before seen? Want flocks of lawyers beating their wings, circling around our every move? Just keep it up, just keep this stuff up. We’ll get all that and more.