CANADA: Professor admits to ghost-written paper

The practice of ghostwriting, where pharmaceuticals companies convince university professors to put their names on articles written by someone else, was brought further into the light after a Canadian professor admitted she wrote only a portion of a published paper, despite being listed as sole author.

McGill University psychology professor Barbara Sherwin issued an apology, saying she regretted not disclosing the fact that pharmaceutical giant, Wyeth, had paid a firm to work on an article published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The article ran in 2000 and reported that oestrogen could help treat memory loss in older patients.

The apology was sparked by a recent unveiling of court documents by the New York Times and the medical journal PLoS Medicine. The documents showed that 26 articles published between 1998 and 2005, which had emphasised the benefits of taking hormones to protect against various conditions, had been partially or fully written by a writing firm paid by Wyeth.

The drugs company's oestrogen medications, Premarin and Prempro, had annual sales of nearly US$2 billion in 2001.

Sherwin, who holds a Canada Research chair in hormones, brain and cognition, said in her apology that she backed the findings and that they represented "sound and thorough scholarship". But she regretted not disclosing the writing firm had been involved.

"I made an error in agreeing to have my name attached to that article without having it made clear that others contributed to it," she said.

McGill said it was investigating the matter but would not comment, while the journal appears to have removed the article from its archive.

Sherwin seems to be the first professor to apologise for a situation that others, who have been confronted about ghostwritten material, have dismissed.

Mina Dulcan editor of the Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry which published a study on paroxetine and children, told the BBC investigative show Panorama two years ago that she was not bothered by the fact the published article was at odds with the data and appeared to have been ghostwritten.

"I don't have any regrets about publishing at all. It generated all sorts of useful discussion which is the purpose of a scholarly journal," Dulcan said.

An article in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine listing Gloria Bachmann, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, as its lead author was near verbatim to a draft written by the company DesignWrite, the same firm involved in the Sherwin article.

Bachmann told the New York Times:"This is my work, this is what I believe, this is reflective of my view."

Pharmaceutical critic David Healy, a psychiatry professor at Bangor University in the UK, has been warning of ghost-written articles for years. Healy said the practice was so pervasive he estimated almost all articles linked to an on-patent pharmaceutical were likely to be ghost-written and he has warned journal editors of certain articles that have passed his desk.

"Despite being told the article is ghost-written, the journal published and didn't ask the company to make the data available," Healy said, alluding to his call for raw data to be made available from trials which would help ghostwriters more accurately portray the drug.

Healy has criticised the heavy use by the pharmaceuticals of paid university-based consultants and the burying of negative data. He said the practice of using ghost-writers was starting to emerge as an issue that threatened the reputations of universities.

"The issue has crept up on people so universities may get their act together in due course. They have been prepared to accept some hits to their credibility in return for the money and influence, but if it becomes clear their credibility is suffering too badly this will change. Up until now it's been win-win. It will be interesting to see if things change."