Let’s abandon the term ‘ghostwriting’
Once again, the term ‘ghostwriting’ appears to have caused confusion,
judging from the tone of the questions asked about the subject by the
House of Commons health select committee .
Ghost authorship, where unknown authors control the content of papers
and the named authors merely sign their names without having any control
over the content, is indisputably unethical, as the representatives of the
pharmaceutical industry giving evidence to the committee were quick to
agree. However, there is no evidence that this happens in more than a tiny
minority of papers.
What is common practice, particularly (but not exclusively) in papers
describing industry-sponsored research, is for professional medical
writers to draft papers in partnership with named authors. While the
former assist with writing, the latter control the content. This practice,
which is not only perfectly ethical but can also improve both the quality
and timeliness of publications, is sometimes known as ghostwriting. Owing
to the risk of confusion with ghost authorship (confusion that seems to
have thoroughly permeated the members of the select committee), the term
is best avoided. Abandoning the word ‘ghostwriting’ is therefore one of
the recommendations in the guidelines for professional medical writers
involved in developing publications, recently prepared by the European
Medical Writers Association (EMWA) . The guidelines also make various
recommendations about the ethical preparation of manuscripts, and I urge
all medical writers (and those who work with them) to read and follow the
I also find it a little disappointing that, although the select
committee appeared to be interested in the involvement of professional
medical writers, they did not see fit to ask the medical writers
themselves for their views. EMWA would have been happy to send a
representative had they been asked.
1. Eaton L. Drug company chiefs accept the need for more openness.
2. Jacobs A, Wager E. European Medical Writers Association (EMWA)
guidelines on the role of medical writers in developing peer-reviewed
publications. Curr Med Res Opin 2005; 21(2): in press.
I am president of EMWA, head of its ghostwriting task force, and co-author of its guidelines. I also own and run Dianthus Medical Limited, which provides manuscript-writing services to pharmaceutical companies and academic researchers.
Competing interests: No competing interests