By Paul Thacker
When the New York Times raised ethical concerns about the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) novel collaboration with a Big Pharma funded medical communications company to write a medical textbook, one would think the organization would go all out to rectify the situation. If you’re a creature of Washington, you know the drill:
First, deny culpability.
Second, apologize for what you didn’t do.
Third, announce new ethics rules, so that what didn’t happen will never happen again.
That’s typically how it works. But at APA and their publishing house, the APPI, brains seem to function differently from the rest of us.
Observing the APA try to bat away allegations of ghostwriting is like watching a silent slapstick where an actor trips on his own shoe laces and tries valiantly to maintain footing, before tumbling down a nearby flight of stairs, and dropping bottom first into an unfortunately positioned dirty mop bucket.
The most laughable moment was this absurd piece of journalism published in APA’s newsletter, Psychiatric News. About a third of the article is spent belaboring each and every point of the New York Times’ minor correction. You can read the story here.
It’s a Johnnie Cochran “[I]f it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” defensive ploy: magnify any tiny error in the vainglorious belief that it blots out all that awful, horrible, stinky evidence aimed in your direction.
The story also quotes Ron McMillen, chief executive officer of the APA’s publishing house APPI, who claims to have extensive files, proofs, and manuscript versions of the book that clearly demonstrate the active involvement of purported authors Drs. Alan Schatzberg and Charles Nemeroff.
“I've seen the files, and you can clearly see author involvement,” he said. “Schatzberg and Nemeroff have margin notes in all of the galleys with their initials throughout all of the various iterations.”
Three academics who have long criticized medicine’s cozy ties to industry sent a letter to Psychiatric News complaining about some…ahem…obvious holes in the story. After months of dithering, the editor of Psychiatric News sent them a terse email that they would not publish the letter.
As a general service to members of the American Psychiatric Association, POGO is publishing the letter here.
At POGO, we’re not certain if “margin notes” and initials on galleys constitute authorship. But we think the APA could easily put this matter to rest. All they need to do is post any records that explain the provenance of the textbook, including drafts, contracts with STI and/or GlaxoSmithKline, and any communications regarding editing.
If the APA has nothing to hide from its members, this shouldn’t be much of a problem. But we’re not holding our breath.
Paul Thacker is a POGO investigator.