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Ghost authorship of industry funded drug trials is common, say researchers

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39108.653750.DB (Published 01 February 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:223
  1. Sally Hargreaves
  1. 1London

    Ghost authorship, whereby someone who has made a major contribution to a scientific article as an author is not acknowledged, is a widespread practice, says a study published this week.

    In the clinical trials investigated in the study, three quarters of individuals who had made significant contributions to the final paper were not listed as authors (PLoS Medicine 2007;4:e19). In most cases these were statisticians working for the company sponsoring the trial.

    “Ghost authorship is a form of research misappropriation, and we believe that this practice serves commercial purposes,” said the study's lead author, Peter Gøtzsche, of the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Copenhagen.

    “Authorship establishes accountability, responsibility, and credit for scientific articles. If authorship is misappropriated, readers may be misled, and the potential for manipulated analyses and conclusions may increase,” he added.

    The researchers assessed all published, industry initiated randomised trials approved in 1994-5 by the scientific and ethical committees for Copenhagen and Frederiksberg in Denmark. They compared the full trial protocols, written before the trial started, with the primary scientific report that resulted from these trials and that was published in a peer reviewed journal. A total of 44 trials were included, of which 43 were initiated by one of 26 multinational drug firms and one by a local company.

    Ghost authorship was considered to be present if individuals who wrote the trial protocol, did statistical analyses, or wrote the manuscript were not listed as authors of the publication or members of a study group or writing committee or were not mentioned in an acknowledgment.

    Researchers found evidence of ghost authorship in three quarters (33) of the 44 trials. In 31 trials the ghost authors were statisticians. Eight publications acknowledged the assistance of statisticians, and four acknowledged the assistance of medical writers.

    Journal editors now increasingly demand full transparency before publication in terms of who wrote, paid for, and carried out studies. Many medical journals have introduced new procedures to ensure this transparency.

    Guidelines such as those drawn up by the International Committee on Medical Journal Editors have, however, been criticised for being ineffective, and they lack sufficient endorsement outside the largest general medical journals.

    Dr Gøtzsche said that “the prevalence of ghost writing could be considerably reduced, and transparency improved, if existing guidelines were followed, and if protocols were publicly available.”

    Virginia Barbour, editor of PLoS Medicine, said, “The absence from a paper of all those who are entitled to authorship can lead to both undeclared conflicts of interest of these ghost authors in journal articles and also to a concern over whether the declared authors are truly accountable for a study's conclusions.

    “The main aim of editors is to ensure that papers they publish are a complete and accurate record of the research that was done. The use of ghost authors seriously compromises that aim.”

    However, she added: “Both authors and journals are becoming much more aware of ghost authorship as an issue. Although many journals have put mechanisms in place to ask for the declaration of contribution of all authors, which improves the reporting of who did what, ultimately only the sponsors and authors of studies can guarantee that all those who are entitled to authorship are named.”

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