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In praise of ghostly scribes for scientists Add to ...

Ghostwriting is not immoral, and scientific researchers could well benefit if professional writers rendered their often impenetrable prose more readable, both to the public and to other researchers. Consequently, two University of Toronto scholars, Simon Stern and Trudo Lemmens, have mistakenly targeted ghostwriting in their paper titled Legal Remedies for Medical Ghostwriting: Imposing Fraud Liability on Guest Authors of Ghostwritten Articles, published on Tuesday in the journal PLoS Medicine.

Professors Lemmens and Stern have a good point in criticizing “guest authors”: scientists who do little more than lend the authority of their names to scientific medical articles without taking any active part in the actual research and gathering of data. But some of the remedies they propose are drastic: legal liability for fraud, including the far-reaching RICO statute in the United States, in which the R stands for “racketeer.”

They are right to insist that the named authors of such articles must all have really contributed to the research, but wrong to say they have to write (or significantly revise) all or part of the texts. A professional writer could often do better at the converting the raw research into clear, intelligible prose, free of unnecessary jargon.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, for instance, defines “ghostwriter” as “a person who writes on behalf of the credited author of a work.” The word is not a pejorative, but articles on this issue (including another by Prof. Lemmens) have highly rhetorical titles that treat it as such: Leopards in the Temple; Ghosts in the Machine; The Haunting of Medical Journals; Ghostwriting: The Dirty Little Secret; Ghost Marketing; and others that use the hybrid concept of “ghost authorship.”

If, on the other hand, pharmaceutical companies are paying, in whole or in part, for the research, and they supply the ghostwriters, there is a need for particularly vigilant reading of the draft by the researchers, so that no advertising spin creeps in.

Guest authorship is indeed to be eschewed. Ghostwriting, however, is one valuable form of the recently recognized field of “knowledge translation,” which is in favour with the enlightened Canadian Institutes of Health Research. It is not racketeering, or any other kind of organized crime, such as the American RICO statute was designed for. Ghosts have a right to life.

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