Giving up the ghost: exorcising biomedical research articles

One in ten medical journal submissions are written by ghost authors. AAP

In 2009, medical editors from around the world gathered at a Peer Review Congress in Vancouver, Canada, to discuss, among other things, “ghost authorship” of medical research articles.

Ghost authorship of such articles involves deliberate suppression of the fact that it’s been written by someone other than the named author or authors.

In most cases of academic ghost authorship, (not to be confused with ghost authorship of sporting “autobiographies"), an article is written by a professional medical writer who is commissioned or employed by a pharmaceutical company.

The name of this ghost author is suppressed and the only names that appear on the article are those of researchers.

These “authors” (sometimes referred to as “guest authors”) are often prominent academics who might have been involved in conducting the research, but not in writing the article itself.

Evidence presented at the Vancouver conference suggested approximately one in ten research articles submitted to major medical journals has a ghost author.

The long road to publishing

To understand why this problem arises, it’s necessary to know something about biomedical evidence – how it’s generated and how many parties are involved.

First, a researcher chooses to conduct a particular piece of research. Then a funding body decides whether or not to fund the research and an ethics committee ensures that human research participants or animals involved will be adequately protected.

Once the research has been conducted, written up and submitted for publication, the editor of the medical journal that receives the paper decides whether or not to publish the findings.

These published results may then be summarised, collated with other evidence, and disseminated to doctors through a number of different routes, including formal clinical practice guidelines and pharmaceutical company marketing.

Different interests

It’s clear a number of groups – each with their own interest – has a stake in the process of generating evidence for clinical practice. In addition to wanting to help patients by generating information about new treatments:

  • researchers need to be at the academic cutting edge in order for their careers to progress;

  • government funding bodies need to set politically savvy research agendas;

  • journal editors need to maintain the profiles of their journals and;

  • pharmaceutical companies need to make money for their shareholders.

While these goals are often complementary, each of these groups also has a competing interest when it comes to the conduct or dissemination of medical research.

Gideon Burton