POGO noted last week that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is considering new rules to address the issue of corporate ghostwriting in medical literature.
Although NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins told POGO that his agency is "sending a clear message to institutions and investigators alike that we support the principles of transparency and accountability in research," a question remains. Do these rules go far enough?
As I explained to Nature, Dr. Collins continues to miss some subtleties regarding corporate-funded ghostwriting firms, like STI, and how they corrupt the medical literature.
Dr. Collins said that proposed NIH regs on conflicts of interest will require academics to disclose "paid authorship" when filing conflict of interest forms.
But it's not just about the money that a company gives to a professor to work on a study that, when published, provides the patina of academic objectivity. Corporate dollars can infect medical literature even without "paid authorship."
The currency in academia that helps you in tenure, promotions, and pay raises is publications. They have monetary value in themselves. If the NIH wants to make professors fully disclose their conflicts, then professors should disclose not just the money they were given, but ALL the money that a company poured into writing a publication. That includes the money that may be provided for services rendered by the ghostwriting firms, such as pitching an article to a journal editor, filling out the paperwork and dealing with any revisions.
That would be fair, and would probably help to curtail a lot of this nonsense.
The defenders of the ghostwriting status quo will point out that academics don't have the time or skill set to write their own publications. That may be true, and it's a fair argument. But we're not talking about firms that academics hire with their own money to help publish a study and thus gain career advancement—we're talking about ghostwriting firms hired by corporations.
Professors may argue that they have final sign off on the manuscript and thus provide protection against any undue influence from the company paying for the whole affair.
But this strains credulity when the corporation controls the purse strings.
Corporations are in the business...to do business. Not to provide gifts to disinterested parties. Shoveling money out the door, without expecting a return on investment, would violate a CEO's fiduciary responsibility to investors.
It's time for academia to stop the denial and recognize this fact.
Paul D. Thacker is a POGO Investigator.