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Attacking articles in medical journals, those ghostwritten by professional medical writers paid by pharmaceutical companies, is the media's latest attempt to taint anything supported, promoted, or approved by Big Pharma.
December 13, 2005, page one, The Wall Street Journal: "Ghost Story," a 2500-word front page story, accompanied by colorful charts and graphs, took a fresh swipe at the pharmaceutical industry. What was the "big story?" (Are you sitting down?) What's the "big revelation?" (Please put down any sharp objects.) What's the "crucial disclosure?" (Warning: Do not continue reading this if you have a heart condition or are pregnant.) Ready? You sure? Okay...brace yourself. Some articles in medical journals are drafted by professional medical writers and then edited—often heavily so—by the bylined authors before they are published! Don't panic—I have the smelling salts nearby because (deep breath)—there's more: Sometimes pharmaceutical companies pay these medical writers.
There, I said it. As my 14-year old might say, "OMG!"
"OMG!" indeed, because this represents only the latest example of the media positioning anything paid for, promoted, supported, encouraged, approved, or assisted by Big Pharma as bad. And not just bad, but really bad. So bad, in fact, that it deserves banner headline treatment and immediate remediation.
Can you say "Pulitzer?"
The subplot of the article is where the meat of the story resides. The real question on the table is whether it's right and appropriate for pharmaceutical companies to be involved in the drafting of medical journal articles that are based on their own studies of their own products. Hello? Okay, let's try this—How about: Is it right and appropriate for pharmaceutical companies to blur the line between marketing and science? That's a better question, but it presupposes that all marketing is bad and all science is good.
Let's pursue that proposition. Who would think marketing and science make poor bedfellows? Well, cui bono? Surprise! The people at the front of the anti-marketing, pro-science queue are the editors of our medical journals. After all, if these self-appointed Sultans of Science cease to be the singular gatekeepers of new scientific information then, quite logically, the world will come to an end. Their canard that ghostwritten articles denigrate the nature of the material is such a transparent and disingenuous attempt to discredit the pharmaceutical industry that it is—or should be—embarrassing. It calls into question the true angels of their nature. In fact, one might be Marcia Angell.
Next time you read an op-ed in your favorite newspaper by a well-known personage consider this: Was a ghostwriter employed? Answer: Probably. Next time you hear your favorite politician give an address, ask yourself if the speaker wrote the speech. Answer: Probably not. And then ask yourself this: Does it make a difference? If the article or the address truly represents the beliefs of the bylined author, it calls to mind the slogan coined by BASF, the chemical company: "We don't make a lot of the things you use. We make a lot of the things you use better."
Me, personally, I'd rather read articles that are well written. I also believe that if the incursion of professional writing assistance makes the articles better, then that's a good thing. Because it tends to make dense data more easily understandable.
Isn't that the point?
Peter Pitts is senior vice president at Manning, Selvage & Lee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org