Something stinks when academics are “helped” to write their papers by professional ghostwriters who are paid for by pharmaceutical companies. It is even worse when the papers are written by the pharmaceutical companies and academics in the field are flattered or otherwise persuaded by their agents to put their names to the papers. McGill University has “reprimanded” a senior professor, Barbara Sherwin, for the practice but are at pains to point out that she has not been “sanctioned”.
What exactly does a reprimand – which is no sanction – accomplish?
The ghostwriting for what was ostensibly a peer-reviewed scientific article was essentially just promotional literature for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals’ and hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Wyeth paid a New Jersey professional-writing firm, DesignWrite, to help Sherwin produce a paper on treatment options for age associated memory loss that was eventually published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The paper was published in 2000. Sherwin was listed as the sole author of that paper, even though Karen Mittleman, an employee of DesignWrite, was involved in the process. The paper was published just when critics started raising doubts about hormone-replacement therapy.
Wyeth – through DesignWrite – had commissioned at least 40 scientific papers endorsing the therapy. During 2001, Wyeth sold hormones for HRT worth $2.1 billion.
Apparently Dr. Sherwin is no longer a member of the Quebec Order of Psychologists, which means she can no longer practice under the title of psychologist.
Even more worrying is the Macleans story that Karen Mittleman of DesignWrite – on behalf of Wyeth – actually solicited this paper. There is also a hint of a rather cozy relationship between the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society and DesignWrite.
The stink is more of a stench!
Her alleged transgression came to light in a class-action suit involving 8,400 women against the drug company Wyeth (now part of Pﬁzer). Lawyers representing the women, who claim they were harmed by their hormone replacement therapy (HRT) drugs, discovered that scientiﬁc research papers extolling the virtues of the treatment while downplaying potential harm appeared to have been written, not by the academics who signed their name to the papers, but by writers hired by the pharmaceutical company.
According to court documents ﬁled by the plaintiffs, Wyeth paid the Princeton, New Jersey-based medical communications company DesignWrite to produce articles on HRT for publication in academic journals between 1997 and 2003. DesignWrite would write the papers, then approach leading academics to claim authorship for them.
Sherwin’s relationship with the pharmaceutical company started innocently enough. In the early 1990s, she was invited to give a presentation about her work on androgens and psychological functioning in women. There, she met a woman named Karen Mittleman during the lunch break. Mittleman introduced herself as a PhD and a former academic who worked in medical communications. The pair hit it off, and kept in touch. “I liked her, and considered her a casual friend,” Sherwin told Maclean’s over the phone from her ofﬁce at McGill.
Several years later, in 1998, Mittleman called Sherwin to ask if she wanted to write a paper for the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society at the invitation of the journal’s editor. The subject was pharmacological treatment options for age-associated memory loss. Sherwin, an expert on hormones and how they inﬂuence memory and mood in people, had just completed a grant proposal on the subject, and said she’d be happy to write the article.
“[Mittleman] told me she would provide support by typing the manuscript and formatting it in the style of that particular journal,” explains Sherwin. The work itself would be based on Sherwin’s notes. In return, Mittleman, a senior writer at DesignWrite, promised to send Sherwin typed drafts for editing, and hard copies of references the professor requested. “I was completely under the impression that [Mittleman] was working for the journal, that it was the journal who hired her.”
What Mittleman never revealed was that her employer, DesignWrite, had a business relationship with Wyeth and other pharmaceutical companies.
Karen Mittleman, as Antidote has noted, has the perfect Dickensian name for her job as the go-between finding researchers willing to sign their names to papers written by drug companies.
The reprimand by McGill seems little more than a very mild slap on the wrist.
Related: McGill sets bad example on integrity