Altman, Lawrence K. "Some Authors in Medical Journals May Get Paid by ‘Spin Doctors,'"
New York Times, 4 October 1994, p. C3.
Professor Troyan A. Brennan of Harvard's School of Public Health wrote in NEMJ last month
that he had been offered $2500 to write an editorial to be submitted to a journal. The money was
offered by a New York public relations firm. Brennan offers no proof but suggests that this
episode is but the tip of an iceberg: physicians, he believes, are being paid to write favorable
statements by pharmaceutical firms, for example.
On the other hand, drug companies frequently pay researchers to do the research and write
reports attesting to the safety and effectiveness of drugs. Such sources of payment for research
are often stated and aboveboard. However, editorializing is another matter.
This flap about buying "opinion pieces" comes at a time when "conflicts of interest" are of great
concern to ethicists and government. They also arise at a time when journals are suffering from
losses of advertising revenue. The issue: are journals relaxing standards and accepting editorials
so as to obtain advertising revenue? The practice of having ghosts and editorial assistants bought
and paid for by the drug companies is also raised as an issue of ethical concern.
The public relation firm doing this sort of business makes no bones about it: the company is
identified as the firm of Edelman Medical Communication of New York. They made their offer
to Dr. Brennan after drawing his name from one of their databases and, when he turned down the
offer, they drew another candidate for a favorable statement and they readily admit that they are
now helping that other physician as well as a lawyer write the piece they wanted from Brennan.
Indeed, Edelman sent Brennan a packet of materials describing the sort of work they wanted
done and the packet included another editorial which appeared in, as it turns out, JAMA.
"Both the J.A.M.A. and the Lancet ... have criticized the practice under which drug companies
pay prominent doctors to sign their names to ghostwritten scholarly reviews about new drugs."
The specter is raised here that this sort of dependence on drug firms and their sponsorships will
grow to the extent that federal funding is decreased.
However, some enthusiasts for particular research (sleep disorders are cited as an extensive
example) are written by some in an effort to stimulate further research rather than to satisfy drug
manufacturers. Thus, getting federal sources interested in some research one considers
underfunded is another reason for writing slanted editorials.
Again, the issue of defining the boundaries of what is ethical and what is not is unclear.
Furthermore, using ghosts and editorial assistants is often a great boon to researchers who lack
writing skills; such editorial assistance, to some physicians anyway, only makes common sense.
A most unbelievable quote from Dr. Brennan in this article: "Most physicians are unaware that
there may be things in the published literature that are being paid for directly by pharmaceutical
or public relations firms."