The current issue of the journal Bioethics focuses on the problem of ghostwriting in the medical literature and is well worth a read. At this point, the main three articles on the topic appear to be free (at least I was able to gain full text access today, and I have no subscription to the journal.)
The first article, by Tobenna D. Anekwe at Harvard School of Public Health, argues that ghostwriting is in fact a form of plagiarism. While ghostwriting is sometimes called "honorary authorship" in order to make it seem acceptable, Anekwe makes the following interesting point:
"Yet honorary authorship is a form of plagiarism
because it entails claiming authorship for work that
was done by others. The twist is that, here, the corporation
(the willing ‘victim’ of plagiarism) actually wants the
scientist to ‘steal’ its work and publish it as his or her
own. But surely this one difference makes industry ghostwriting
no more acceptable. Honorary authorship should
be frowned upon by the research community in the same
way that other types of plagiarism are frowned upon. Yet
it remains unclear from their policies whether universities
view this practice as being as serious as other forms of
The second article, by Sismondo and Doucet at Queens University in Ontario, describes the insidious process known as "ghost management:"
"In this article, we present evidence that pharmaceutical companies engage in the ghost management of the scientific literature, by controlling or shaping several crucial steps in the research, writing, and publication of scientific articles. Ghost management allows the pharmaceutical industry to shape the literature in ways that serve its interests."
This fascinating trifecta is rounded out by a commentary penned by Carl Elliot and Amy Snow Landa at the University of Minnesota. The authors conclude that both ghostwriting and ghost management are unethical practices and will be difficult to regulate until the medical education companies and physicians who collude with the process feel the sting of litigation:
"Given the amount of litigation against the pharmaceutical industry in recent years, some of which has resulted in record-breaking penalties, it is surprising that no litigation has been directed towards medical writers, medical communications agencies, or the physicians who sign their names to ghosted articles. Maybe this is because these players are seen as mere instruments in a much larger marketing enterprise, or maybe it is simply that their pockets are not as deep. But if a few high-profile lawsuits were successfully aimed in their direction, it is a good bet that the practice of ghostwriting would come to a sudden halt."