The British Medical Journal (BMJ) recently published an article titled ‘Ghostwriting: the importance of definition and its place in contemporary drug marketing’. In the article, the author, Alastair Matheson, describes the many ways he believes the pharmaceutical industry influences medical publications of industry-sponsored research for marketing purposes and claims there has been an active rebranding of ghostwriting that has contributed to this. He controversially states, “The use of writers, regardless of whether they are called ghosts, is just one of several options for building commercial perspectives into academic literature, then spinning their attribution to strengthen credibility.”
The claims made in this article have led to Rapid Responses being published on the BMJ website from the International Society of Medical Publications Professions (ISMPP) and the Global Alliance of Publications Professionals (GAPP), who both categorically refute them. In the response from ISMPP (published on 12 September 2016), the not-for-profit organisation contend that rather than a rebranding, “there has been a positive evolution of transparency and completeness in medical publications reporting industry research”. ISMPP reiterate their position that ghostwriting is unacceptable but they fully support the transparent disclosure of the use of professional medical writers in the development of publications. The response goes on to say that current disclosure practices have progressed over the last decade and are now commonplace in medical literature, resulting in improved transparency.
This response was fully supported by GAPP who published their own reply on 15 September 2016, restating that, because their involvement is transparent, professional medical writers are not ghostwriters. GAPP refute Matheson’s claims that the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) criteria bar writers from authorship, pointing out that the criteria recommend that the contribution of medical writers is appropriately disclosed in the acknowledgements unless all four ICMJE criteria are met, in which case the writer can be given co-authorship. In response to Matheson’s claim that these disclosures of involvement are often in “the small print” of the acknowledgements, GAPP contend that this is in fact controlled by the journal and publishers, and therefore outside the influence of industry or medical writers. GAPP also reject the claim that medical writers are subject to industry leverage over content, presenting evidence that on the whole, this is not the case.
These two associations have strived to set standards in the ethical reporting of industry research and to correct misinformation presented in the media about the medical writing profession. It is therefore unsurprising that both have felt it necessary to respond to this controversial article, and suggests that perhaps there is still work to be done.