Grassley takes on pharmaceutical ghostwriters

Sen. Chuck Grassley this week continued his push to prevent drug companies from ghostwriting promotional articles in scientific journals.

The Iowa Republican, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, has conducted a two-year investigation into the controversial practice in which academics sign their names to articles penned by third-party writers working for drug companies. Grassley is urging the National Institute of Health (NIH) to require more transparency when those articles are published.

"The physicians and scientists sign on even if they may not be intimately familiar with the underlying data or provided limited input on the article," Grassley wrote in a June 24 letter to NIH Director Francis Collins. "The objectives of that practice are to raise the credibility of the findings and conclusions and increase the likelihood that the articles, which tend to put the companies’ products in a positive light, will be published in important medical journals."

NIH is currently finalizing a proposed rule on this topic. Grassley wants that rule to require disclosure from all financial interests providing research and other support for the articles. A failure to stem the practice of ghostwriting, he warned, could have harmful consequences. 

"[R]eliance on the ghostwritten articles by others in the medical community," he wrote to Collins, "may lead physicians to prescribe treatments that are more costly or even harmful to their patients." 

Grassley's office this week also released a report based on its investigation. The report contains numerous documents and e-mails that seem to indicate the practice of ghostwriting is widespread among some drug and medical device companies. 

"In the interest of transparency and accountability," the report states, "all parties who contribute substantively or financially to a publication should be acknowledged. Only then can readers understand the context of a study and be aware of any commercial interests that initiated and influenced the results or recommendations presented in the publication."

Even if the academics aren't paid directly for their contributions, the report argues, they're still rewarded by way of exposure.

"Successful publications raise the authors’ visibility in their fields and may lead to promotions or more research funding opportunities. For physicians and scientists in academia, it’s 'publish or perish' — a phrase that is commonly used to describe the pressure that faculty feel to publish frequently in order to further their careers."

Grassley is asking NIH to consider the findings as it finalizes its new disclosure rules.