Phantom authorship is kind of spooky

May 15, 2006

I have trouble with ghost authors writing up studies in which the physician played little or no part.

In the movie "Back to School," Rodney Dangerfield plays a businessman who buys his way into college in order to spend quality time with his son. When a term paper is due on the topic of Kurt Vonnegut, Dangerfield hires Vonnegut to write the paper. His English professor, convinced that the irresponsible character played by Dangerfield did not write the paper himself, laments: "I don't know who you got to write this paper for you, but whoever it was doesn't know the first thing about Vonnegut."

This humorous anecdote was called to mind recently when I read a newspaper report of "ghost authors," financed by pharmaceutical companies. They reportedly write papers about the companies' products, only to have the papers published under the name of a doctor who signs the copyright form and mails it to the journal.

At one of my faculty meetings recently, a professor described getting a manuscript sent to him by a professional writer. The article, listing his name as author, described the results of a study that my professor had not performed, and was based upon data that my professor had never seen. The helpful, friendly, and competent writer told my professor that all he needed to do was sign the copyright transmittal form and send it in.

But I have trouble with unattributed ghost authors writing up studies in which the physician listed as author played little or no part. The writer presumably puts as positive a spin as possible on the results so as to please the company paying the bill, and the physician author lends his or her name (and with it the name of his or her institution if a faculty member) presumably to give credibility to the work.

Those of you who waste a few valuable minutes of your time each fortnight reading the drivel I contribute in this space realize that a reluctance to write is not one of my characteristics. Also, you can be certain from the poor quality of my prose that there are no professional writers involved. While others, much smarter and certainly wiser than I, may want writers to help them, I think it is fair for us readers to insist that those listed as authors really did make the major intellectual contributions to the publication. And simply signing a copyright form does not meet that test.

Peter J. McDonnell, MD is director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times. He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building, 600 North Wolfe St., Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514 E-mail: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu

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