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Michael Price

Ghost-Written Article at Heart of Pharma Fraud Case

Last month, the biggest health-care fraud settlement in U.S. history was reached, with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) admitting to federal prosecutors that it essentially paid more than 20 academic researchers to attach their names to a ghost-written article that misrepresented the safety and efficacy of the depression drug Paxil for children. While GSK will pay quite handsomely for its misdeeds–to the tune of $3 billion–an article that appeared yesterday in the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that the academicians who agreed to let their names be used have repeatedly ignored calls to retract the disgraced article and collectively still hold millions of dollars in federal grant money.

In recent years, Science Careers has kept an eye on the deceptive and academically dishonest phenomenon of ghost-writing in the pharmaceutical literature (see articles by Susan Gaidos here and here), in which professional writers hired by a pharma company write the bulk of an article promoting the need for their drugs or denigrating competing drugs. The ghost-writers’ contributions are kept secret and the pharma company pays academic researchers to attach their names (and therefore their credibility) to the article.

The Chronicle article notes that 22 researchers, many of them with university positions, claimed authorship of the Paxil article that appeared in 2001 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. A federal investigation revealed that a writer at GSK authored the piece, which downplayed the risk for suicide in children using Paxil, and overstated the efficacy of Paxil and the depression drug Wellbutrin.
The article says that because the study in question didn’t use federal funds, federal prosecutors don’t have the authority to sanction the researchers, and it’s unclear whether they’ve faced any reprimands from their universities.
As for correcting the publication record, the article notes that,
Universities could act on their own to demand that the journal retract the article, said Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of BMJ, another leading medical journal. But, she said, “it is proving hard to get those who should do something to act.”

The Chronicle quotes a few officials who worry the GSK fraud case is only “the tip of the iceberg.” Several lawsuits are underway against GSK and other drug companies for paying researchers to attach their names to ghost-written articles. Stay tuned to see how this plays out.