Corruption in the Holy Places

[ cw for suicide and medical abuse ]

No one really knows how much of the medical literature is ghostwritten, but a hint emerged in a 2003 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry (BJP).  A lawsuit brought against Pfizer in 1999 had turned up documents produced by a medical communications company called Current Medical Directions, which was responsible for a publication strategy for Pfizer’s antidepressant Zoloft.  These documents listed all the Zoloft studies that Current Medical Directions was preparing for publication in 1999. The authors of the BJP article, David Healy and Dinah Cattel, decided to track down the articles on Zoloft that Current Medical Directions had been working on in 1999 and see what had happened to them.  They picked three years (1998, 1999, and 2000) and searched the medical literature for articles published on Zoloft during that time.  They found that the agency-prepared articles outnumbered the articles written in the traditional way, were published in more prestigious journals, and had citation rates over five times that of traditionally authored articles.  The ghosted articles also painted a much happier profile of Zoloft than did the traditionally authored articles.  For example, the articles prepared by Current Medical Directions on pediatric psychopharmacology failed to mention five of the six children taking Zoloft who took action toward committing suicide.

Metzl, Jonathan M., and Anna Kirkland, eds. Against health: How health became the new morality. NYU Press, 2010. (p. 99-100)

In layman’s terms: companies are commissioning ghostwritten articles about their drugs and getting them published in medical journals.  Or in other words, they’re advertising in places where there’s not supposed to be advertising, specifically in order to deceive people about the content’s origins.

While I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater, I worry that people are too quick to forget about things like this when they associate cultural prestige with credibility.

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