The Guardian’s Elliott Ross has been mucking around in Big Pharma’s never-ending quest to make sure that research is slanted their way. It isn’t pretty.
When doctors are deciding which drug to prescribe a patient, the idea behind evidence-based medicine is that they inform their thinking by consulting scientific literature. To a great extent, this means relying on medical journals.
The trouble is that pharmaceutical companies, who stand to win or lose large amounts of money depending on the content of journal articles, have taken a firm grip on what gets written about their drugs. That grip was strong way back in 2004, when The Lancet’s chief editor Richard Horton lamented that “journals have devolved into information laundering operations for the pharmaceutical industry.” It may be even tighter now.
Drug companies exert this hold on knowledge through publication planning agencies, an obscure subsection of the pharmaceutical industry that has ballooned in size in recent years, and is now a key lever in the commercial machinery that gets drugs sold.
The planning companies are paid to implement high-impact publication strategies for specific drugs. They target the most influential academics to act as authors, draft the articles, and ensure that these include clearly-defined branding messages and appear in the most prestigious journals.
Big Pharma has been using the strategy for a while, and they’re getting increasingly brazen. Take the case of Merck, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world:
In a flow-chart drawn up by Eric Crown, publications manager at Merck (the company that sold the controversial painkiller Vioxx), the determination of authorship appears as the fourth stage of the article preparation procedure. That is, only after company employees have presented clinical study data, discussed the findings, finalised “tactical plans” and identified where the article should be published.
Perhaps surprisingly to the casual observer, under guidelines tightened up in recent years by the International Committee of Journal Editors (ICMJE), Crown’s approach, typical among pharmaceutical companies, does not constitute ghostwriting….
“We’ve never done ghostwriting, per se, as I’d define it”, says John Romankiewicz, president of Scientific Therapeutics Information, the New Jersey firm that helped Merck promote Vioxx with a series of positive articles in medical journals. “We may have written a paper, but the people we work with have to have some input and approve it.”
So the next time some college kid gets caught plagiarizing, maybe instead of kicking them out of college they ought to get him an internship in Big Pharma.