Using forensics to reveal medical ghostwriting (Reuters story)

Frederic Curtiss, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Managed Care Pharmacy, told Reuters Health that data attached to documents by Word has allowed him to discover undisclosed contributors. In one case, for instance, a revised manuscript arrived at his office with four named authors, but when he examined the metadata, he discovered an additional author was making substantial contributions.

When documents are saved in Word, the software attaches additional information, called metadata, which identifies the creator of the document. During the editing process, changes made by additional authors are also sometimes labeled with authors' names. Curtiss estimates that every third manuscript he receives has metadata that doesn't match listed authors, which can subsequently result in contributors being added to the acknowledgments, or, rarely, as additional authors.

Nice work here. Journal editor sleuthed out contributions of a paid med writer in one story -- and included him as author despite that author didn't want it that way.

But the sleuthing is getting tougher, as the article describes, as these ghosts are learning to hide their tracks.

This is science? Nay. As Drummond Rennie once told me, "That's not science. That's marketing."

Do read the Reuters story.

Posted via web from David Dobbs's Somatic Marker

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I had a slight taste of this when I was the managing editor of an academic journal some years ago. I didn't sleuth anyone out, but based on what I knew of the authors, I'd say about 20% of the papers were not accurately credited. Very often the lead "author" was the most well recognized name in the field and was an in-name-only contributor (with a staff of others doing the research and writing) -- but, because his/her was the marquis name, they got top billing. I never thought it was fair, but everyone seemed to acknowledge it as how things are done, at least in that field (healthcare), and I imagine many others.

I know of at least one case where the author of a paper learned the identity of a reviewer from the metadata in the review, which the reviewer had written with Word. Lesson learned: do not use Word if it would be embarrassing for your authorship of the document to be discovered, or failing that, look for ways to hide your tracks in the metadata.

Of course, the author of a review *should* be anonymous, which is why I always write reviews in either plain text or LaTeX (depending how much mathematics is involved). People who actually write journal articles should not be anonymous, and I applaud this editor for taking steps to ferret out ghostwriters.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 Sep 2009 #permalink

The impact of medical ghostwriters is an important issue, but I'm not sure that this metadata approach is really valid. The metadata won't tell you whether someone proofread an article and corrected typos or made an intellectual contribution to the study.correcting typos would usually not even merit an acknowledgment.

Under the common definition of scientific authorship, even extensive editing would not merit authorship, although it would almost definitely merit an acknowledgment.

For scientific authorship, you need to have made an intellectual contribution to the work - which may include things that are often part of writing such as choosing what to include and how to interpret the results.

It does sound like a good result in the one case highlighted in the article, but ferreting out which of these categories someone who appears in the metadata belongs in may not be as straightforward as the article makes it sound.

I'm a medical writer, and I have a different perspective about the journal editor who added a writer's name to a paper although she wasn't originally listed as an author.

That the writer's name is now listed as an author implies that she agreed with the conclusions drawn in the article. This may not have been true, in which case the editor violated one of the ICMJE criteria for authorship. When I disagree strongly with the conclusions that my coauthors draw, I ask for my name to be removed from the paper. Should journal editors be allowed to override this established procedure without knowing the facts?

In other cases, I've been involved with a "work for hire" (rewriting, editing) and haven't seen the paper again after I've sent it to a client. In these situations, I haven't approved any changes in the version that was submitted--in fact, I often don't know whether a work is ever submitted--a similar violation of the ICMJE criteria if my name is later added as an author. What is the best procedure in such cases?

Ghost authorship is clearly an issue whose time has come. However, I don't believe any one person should be making authorship decisions for contributors who might have valid reasons for not being listed as authors, no matter what the metadata indicate.