Skip to main content

Two law professors at the University of Toronto think they know a way to restore some integrity to medical research: launch class-action lawsuits against doctors suspected of fraud.

In an article published this week in the online journal PLoS Medicine, Simon Stern and Trudo Lemmens take aim at a practice known as "medical ghostwriting," in which prominent doctors agree to be "guest authors" of articles and studies that have largely penned by pharmaceutical companies.

The articles are submitted for publication to medical journals without revealing the full extent of drug company involvement. The consumers of these journals – namely other physicians – are left with the impression they are reading an impartial account of a drug when it is actually a clever piece of advertising.

In return for their co-operation, the doctors are often paid a fee and get the added bonus of claiming credit for conducting research – while doing little or no actual work.

Mr. Stern and Mr. Lemmens say that doctors who agree to be guest authors are guilty of fraud that harms the medical profession and patients. After all, physicians rely upon such material to make decisions about treatments. If the material is biased, then they may be prescribing their patients inappropriate medications.

The existence of ghostwritten articles usually come to light during class-action lawsuits in which patients allege that they have been harmed by a particular medication, Mr. Lemmens said. As part of the legal proceedings, drug companies are often required to divulge their marketing practices.

In their article, the law professors suggest that doctors may be less inclined to lend their names to dubious research if there is a risk of being dragged into a legal battle.

But unlike a normal class-action lawsuit – composed of patients alleging harm – this legal challenge could be carried out on behalf of the journal readers who were exposed to the fraudulent research paper, argue the law professors.

"We think all subscribers of the journal got defrauded in a way that is separate from the harm that arises to the patients," Mr. Stern said in an interview. "I think a couple of successful lawsuits would go a long way to making doctors less enthusiastic about [being guest authors and] exposing themselves to this sort of liability."