In December, I wrote this story for Crikey about the practice of ghostwriting – whereby undisclosed parties, typically drug companies, are involved in writing and orchestrating medical journal articles. Croakey contributors subsquently noted some of the evidence suggesting this practice is worryingly widespread.

Now Dr Chris Jordens, from the University of Sydney’s Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine,  has responded to the case, raising some broader concerns about managerialism in research:

” This case illustrates how the drug industry influences doctors via an exchange: in effect, industry is purchasing the influence of researchers and clinical opinion leaders with authorial credits.

This kind of exchange is more likely in the current managerialist environment in research – often referred to as the “audit culture” – which is characterised by obsessive quantification of published outputs. Paradoxically, the “audit culture” is implicated in corrupting the very thing it seeks to hold up as the central metric of value and researcher status – that is, authorship.

“I’ve got over 100 publications” is a typical display of credit within the frame of the “audit culture”. Some of Dr Eden’s other comments reveal how methods of amassing publications may actually undermine warrants for authorship.

For example, it is no excuse to say “I don’t remember every single article I’ve written” because according what amounts to the industry code of practice on authorship (i.e. the Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals) it is a condition of authorship that one participates sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for its content. (On the same note, it seems bizarre for someone to comment that an article is an accurate representation of their view. This is surely assumed – unless of course someone else wrote it.)

The same industry code holds that one of the three pillars of authorship is final approval of the version to be published. Where revisions are subject to the final approval of a private company, the named authors lack a proper warrant for authorship.

When researchers allow their name to be used covertly by private companies to legitimate views that the company wants to promulgate, they are participating in a kind of deception. The code is clear: “All persons designated as authors should qualify for authorship, and all those who qualify should be listed.”

Departures from this norm should be seen for what they are: breaches of research integrity that undermine trust in the institution of medical research.

We should be cautious about laying the blame at the feet of individual researchers, however.

Individuals are often just finding the best way to survive in a highly competitive environment which needs to be understood in terms of how incentives and rewards are structured.

One of the key messages in this story is that neo-managerialism (the “audit culture”) poses a real threat to meaningful notions of authorship.”

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