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Dispelling misconceptions about the role of medical writers

Posted by MRoss on 12 Sep 2011 at 15:53 GMT

I am writing in response to two articles that recently appeared in PLoS Medicine (Logdberg L (2011) Being the Ghost in the Machine: A Medical Ghostwriter's Personal View. PLoS Med 8(8): e1001071. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001071 and Matheson A (2011) How Industry Uses the ICMJE Guidelines to Manipulate Authorship—And How They Should Be Revised. PLoS Med 8(8): e1001072. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001072.).

As president of the American Medical Writers Association, I can attest that our organization goes to great lengths to uphold the highest ethical principles and promote transparency in scientific publication through acknowledgment of medical writers’ roles, adherence to applicable guidelines (eg, International Committee of Medical Journal Editors), and full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest, including financial support. While we can’t speak to any one individual’s personal experience, we would like to dispel misconceptions expressed about the role of medical writers in the two articles cited above.

There is no question that the practice of “ghostwriting” (the undisclosed drafting or substantive revision of a manuscript by an anonymous writer) is unethical and should not be tolerated. AMWA has conducted 2 member surveys on ghostwriting, the second of which fortunately indicated a decreasing incidence of this practice (poster presented at the 2009 AMWA Annual Conference by Cindy Hamilton and Adam Jacobs ("Decreased Ghostwriting in a 2008 Versus 2005 Survey of Medical Communicators"). The third survey will be conducted this November.

The article by Matheson mentioned above is especially worrisome because the author provides little if any data to support his arguments, and insists that the practice of listing contributors was instituted to add confusion, not to correct past problems dating to when medical writers were not listed in published articles.

Professional medical writers, appropriately acknowledged, can collaborate with authors to help them convey complex information so it is more readily understood, and to do so in a timely way.

In fact, research by Karen Woolley has found that involvement of medical writers is less likely to be associated with retraction of published articles (Woolley KL. Keynote Address—Two Steps Forward And…? AMWA J. 2009;24:160-6.) In short, medical writers add value by seeking to ensure clear, accurate reporting of scientific results, an approach that ultimately helps to decrease the risk of fraud and enables readers to assess research reports on their own merits.

Melanie Fridl Ross, MSJ, ELS
2010-2011 AMWA President

Competing interests declared: Melanie Fridl Ross, M.S.J., E.L.S., is the 2010-2011 president of the American Medical Writers Association.