Monday, December 7, 2009

Check Out Antidote: The Best Blog on Ghostwriting

Occasionally I admire the work of William Heisel, a journalist and blogger who writes the razor-sharp health blog Antidote, hosted by the University of Southern California and the Annenberg School for Communication. Lately, Heisel has been digging into UCSF's Drug Industry Document Archive (DIDA), specifically its huge collection of smoking gun documents about the medical writing company DesignWrite. There are reams of material here and there is nobody better than Heisel at making sense of it all, and revealing the bankrupt sense of morality that seemed to have permeated DesignWrite and everything it touched.

Currently, Heisel is blogging about Dr. David Archer, an ob/gyn and a key part of the Wyeth/DesignWrite team. Wyeth pharmaceuticals hired DesignWrite to ghostwrite dozens of articles to promote its various products, including birth control pills, antibiotics, and the hormone replacement pill Premarin. Heisel traces Dr. Archer's activities with DesignWrite with devastating tenacity, following the path of financial relationships through the drug company, bought-out "journals," medical writers, and so-called "authors." Each time, the punch line ends up being a glowing endorsement of a Wyeth product, authored by Dr. Archer, but written by...who knows?

At one point, Archer was the editor of a newsletter called "Menopausal Medicine," which is funded by Wyeth. As editor, he had accepted an article by Dr. James V. Fiorica (also a Wyeth-kept man) entitled "Mammographic breast density and hormone replacement therapy." Ghostwritten by DesignWrite, it was a carefully crafted argument that HRT does
not interfere with images on mammography (as has been charged by others academics). In a move reminiscent of the Nemeroff/VNS/Neuropsychopharmacology fiasco, Archer was playing on both sides of the field, each side chock-full of conflicts of interest.

Says Heisel: "[Archer] was supposed to be, as the journal editor, the ultimate arbiter of the strength of the submissions to Menopausal Medicine. But, as documents in the Drug Industry Document Archive show, he also was working directly with DesignWrite on tailoring the article."


Michael S. Altus, PhD, ELS said...

This Carlat Psychiatry Blog entry illustrates one the two ways in which medical education and communications companies approach key opinion leaders to sign on as guest authors of review articles.

This blog entry links to an entry, “Dr. Archer’s Ghost Part 2: This gun for hire has only one bullet” (; dated Dec. 7, 2009, according to another page, on William Heisel’s blog, Antidote. That entry describes an instance in which the MECC approaches a prospective guest author with what amounts to, “We already wrote it. Will you sign it?”

In contrast, the previous Carlat Psychiatry Blog entry, “Invitation to Author a Review Article” (Sunday, Dec. 6, 2009), described an instance in which a MECC approached a prospective guest author with the request to participate in a teleconference to prepare an outline. Then the MECC would prepare the article. “We will write it. Will you sign it?”

In another Antidote blog entry “Dr. Archer’s Ghost: Hormone expert’s disclosure hides drug company’s hand”, (; dated December 4, 2009, according to another page,”,
Antidote asked Dr. Anthony Scialli, an adjunct professor in obstetrics and gynecology at Georgetown University Medical Center and a senior scientist for the Tetra Tech Sciences consulting firm, what he thought about the guest author’s level of disclosure. Here is part of what Dr. Scialli told Antidote:

“If a professional writer is paid by a company to write a piece and a non-author doctor is asked to approve it, the appropriate outcome would be for the professional writer to be listed as the author and for the non-author doctor to be thanked in an acknowledgement for having reviewed the paper. If the non-author doctor makes substantial enough changes to the paper, he or she might be listed as a coauthor. In either case, the funding for the paper should be disclosed.”

Well put, Dr. Scialli!

Anonymous said...

If an article is written by an only Basque speaking scientist, journal, then is an English translation ghostwritten? The translator is not exactly listed as a coauthor.
The intellectual content is what is authored in an article; the author is the one who uses his author to attest to that content. What do College Writing 101 skill have to do with anything?

Steven Reidbord MD said...

There's a nice article in today's New York Times on Wyeth/DesignWrite and hormone replacement therapy.

Anon, translating is far from what is being discussed here. In my own encounter with Wyeth, I was invited to speak about depression — but was given talking points and pre-made slides with buzzwords that were part of an Effexor XR promotional campaign. None of that was offered to "translate" my words to the public. It was pure marketing. See my write-up here (and here).

Michael S. Altus, PhD, ELS said...

Anonymous (December 11, 2009 10:25 PM): No, the translation is not ghostwritten. It is translated. The translator ought to be acknowledged for translating. I am unclear about your question asking about what good College Writing 101 skills have to do with.

Michael S. Altus said...

I should have added that republication of an article, translated or not, should first be approved by the editors of the outlet of first publication and by the outlet(s) of subsequent publication.