Ghosts in the Literature

The Sept issue of Public Library of Science Medicine includes an essay by Sergio Sismondo on “Ghost Management” of the medical literature by the pharmaceutical industry. Dr. Sismondo reports data suggesting that as many as 40% of published articles focusing on specific drugs are ghost authored/managed (ie, company controls or directs multiple steps in the research, analysis, writing, and publication of articles). No matter their derivation, these articles genuinely affect physician behavior in treatment planning and prescribing – and the ghost managed manuscripts are most definitely designed to manipulate this behavior.

How can I say this so authoritatively? I was briefly a ghost in the machine many years ago.

The pay is obscene, so pharma will have no trouble finding willing ghosts. My company offered to double my payments if I’d keep writing for them when I said no thanks after a couple of assignments. Essentially, for purely ghosted manuscripts such as mine, I’d be told to write a X,000-word review article on topic XYZ (bulleted outline of major points to cover provided – including clinical practice points) for Journal ABC. I didn’t know the term for what they were doing, but I quickly realized it wasn’t right (for me or whoever was getting their name slapped on these papers). At my current institution, faculty participation on pharm-ghosted papers is verboten – a policy that can be fairly well overseen when you not only use a standard ethical industry contract template so deviations are obvious but also have someone in a leadership position who monitors manuscripts accepted for publication by health sciences faculty.


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