Should Doctors Who Put Their Names On Ghostwritten 'Journal' Articles For Big Pharma Be Sued For Fraud?

from the and-don't-forget-racketeering dept

A few years back, we wrote about one of the (many) nasty and nefarious practices of the pharma industry: ghostwriting scientific “review” articles that pretended to give an overview of research on a certain treatment, but which really promoted a specific treatment, while de-emphasizing the risks. These ghostwritten works were then made to look legitimate by getting a real doctor or academic to put their name on it, and then getting it published, sometimes in somewhat prestigious journals. Back in 2009, there was some movement on this story, as some Senators began investigating this practice… but not much came of it.

However, now, there’s a fascinating article over at PLoS, arguing that guest authors who put their names on such ghostwritten papers should be charged with fraud under the RICO Act. The article argues that mere academic sanctions and/or banning such authors from publishing again in certain journals may not be enough. Instead, it suggests that a credible claim can be made in some cases on a RICO class action:

Because a journal?s readers are all harmed by the fraud, they may sue the guest in a civil RICO class action. One of their harms involves the value of the journal subscription. The subscription price represents the value of a year?s worth of articles that conform to the guidelines. Readers would not willingly pay for the fraudulent articles, as shown by the hypothetical example of a guest author who disclaims responsibility for authorship. Whether or not they read the article in question, its publication deprives them of the opportunity to read an article satisfying the journal?s requirements, and thus diminishes the value of their subscription. The harm may be measured by reducing the subscription price in proportion to the space devoted to the ghostwritten article. If the subscription costs $100, and the journal publishes 100 articles per year, it could be said that each subscriber suffers a $1 loss from a fraudulent article. The individual loss is small, but the aggregate loss to all subscribers may be significant?particularly if the cost is trebled under RICO.

While I find the whole practice of bogus pharma marketing of this nature to be ridiculous, I’m still not sure I see a strong RICO claim here. My guess is that a lot of courts would throw this kind of claim out pretty quickly. I agree that something should be done to stop ghostwritten articles, but I’m not convinced that potentially charging them under the RICO Act is going to be the most effective.

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Comments on “Should Doctors Who Put Their Names On Ghostwritten 'Journal' Articles For Big Pharma Be Sued For Fraud?”

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Richard (profile) says:

UK Research Assessment

These ghostwritten works were then made to look legitimate by getting a real doctor or academic to put their name on it, and then getting it published, sometimes in somewhat prestigious journals.

The current UK research assessment process is coming down on this practice, demanding evidence of authorship for papers submitted. I would have thought that the journals themselves will be forced to do the same soon – probably the best way to stamp it out.

CommonSense (profile) says:

Re: You downgrade fraud to "ridiculous" at the end.

or maybe….. he’s just not trying to do your thinking for you, and leaving some of the work to the audience. Facts are here, his opinion is here, but he doesn’t tell you what you should think…that’s up to you.

Can be a tough concept to grasp, I understand, especially if you’re used to Fox News or the like…

DannyB (profile) says:

Doctor should lose license

If a doctor puts their name on an article they did not write, they should still be held responsible if the article fraudulently claims to be real science.

One sanction that would work for a doctor is to lose their license.

Overall for doctors or academics, the best remedy is if there would be some mechanism to make it widely known that this person has put their name on a fraudulent article. If they put their name on it, they should be responsible for what it says.

Chris-Mouse (profile) says:

How about a simple requirement that everyone involved in writing and/or editing the paper must be listed on the front page, in order of the amount of writing they did. Also, individuals and corporations providing funding for the research described by the paper should be listed on the front page as well.
It won’t stop corporations from ghostwriting articles, but it will make it a lot more obvious when it happens. It will also make such ghostwriting less effective as people treat it like the advertising it really is.

omnivore says:

Profs/docs have been putting their name to papers they didn’t write reporting research they didn’t do for generations. Their grad students have been their (involunary?) ghostwriters. The pharmcos have just exploited existing practice. If you use RICO to go after such practices, you will have to take down the entire academic enterprise.

Mr. Oizo says:

The problem is the 'high impact'

The problem is not that it is gostwritten, nor that someone else puts his name on it. The problem appears to me the money involved with high impact publications. If there would be no desire from universities (nor a requirement from the government), to have at least XXX high impact publications before you get funding, then these things would not happen.

Alien Bard says:

It’s interesting that the only recognized issue here is the financial harm to various businesses. The potential physical harm to the end consumers seems to be completely ignored or dismissed as unimportant.

Then again, I suppose that is the new trend. Corporate entities are more important then living entities, and they don’t have to worry about physical or mental health. So those things can safely be removed from the equation.

WysiWyg (profile) says:

I really don’t see the problem. If they want to put their name on something, then let them take responsibility for it.

To me it should be treated exactly as if the doctors/whatever themselves wrote the article. That is, if it’s found to be fraudulent, then they get to answer for it in court.

But I don’t think that the very act of signing someone else’ work should be illegal. It should however be a breach of contract with the publication.

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