Two Ghosts
Image by Philipp Klinger via Flickr

Recently, two articles that seemed related in a spooky manner caught my eye — namely, they both involve ghosts.

The first article, a New York Times story about ghostwriters of medical research and reviews, covers the clearly unethical practice of taking an article written by a paid writer (usually paid by a corporation), getting an academic to put his or her name on it, and publishing it as if it were written by the named author without disclosing the real author’s name or role.

The second article, from The Scientist, explains the growing role of contract/clinical research organizations (CROs) in medical and scientific research. Often, CRO researchers play a vital role in conducting and completing research, but are not named in the subsequent reports of the research. However, this is not viewed as unethical if there’s transparency to the academics involved — a few years ago, the ICMJE noted the ethical faults inherent when CROs and their corporate sponsor withholding information from their academic counterparts. To counter CROs, academic research organizations (AROs) have emerged, allowing academic centers to serve as outsourced research hubs.

As an article in The Scientist entitled, “Life in a Rent-a-Lab,” states in a section outlining the pros and cons of working in a CRO, “you won’t gain recognition through publication.” These truly are anonymous workers.

On the surface, these seem like two sides of the same coin. In both cases — a ghostwriter or a ghostresearcher — the actual worker is hidden from the reader. While there’s transparency to the academic putting his or her name over the final publication, the reader is presented with an opacity — the real ghost. The reader’s perception is that  independent academics labored over the work involved, rather than just approving the work of unnamed contributors.

When you add this to the citation diversion and invention that can occur in social citation (as opposed to scholarly citation), the specter of a belief system rises up even further.

To me, the ghosts in our texts and labs means there’s a lot to exorcise if we’re going to have a system bereft of supernatural forces.

And that can feel a little scary.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


3 Thoughts on "Ghostwriters & Ghostresearchers: Supernatural Forces in Scholarship"

I think the big difference between the two is that the ghost writer is a deliberate attempt to deceive. Much of current research is outsourced. For a biology lab, if you want a segment of DNA sequenced, you send it out to a facility for that. If you want to make a transgenic mouse, you contract with a facility that does that. I don’t see too much difference between that and using a CRO. Obviously you’d want to be transparent and include details on all of the above when publishing.

If you think of it, most actual work on any science paper is done by a grad student or a postdoc. Principal Investigators (PI’s) rarely have their hand in at the bench. Is it unethical for a PI to put their name on the paper, since they essentially contracted their students to do the research within the lab?

Oh, and speaking of citation invention, you might enjoy the story told here, of an oft-cited but nonexistent paper.

Since debates about authorship and the ethics thereof abound in the biomedical sciences (in particular), this seems to be just another extension of the same set of issues.

I’m not sure I buy Crotty’s point that because it is similar it is therefore ethical, because plenty of folks debate the ethics of current practice regarding research done by graduate students and post-docs.

But it certainly extends it in interesting directions.

It’s common public-sector practice in the arts. Commission a consultant to do all the research and write a report, them slap your badge on the printed report and trumpet it to the media as if it’s yours.

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