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Flawed Evidence


Doctors "author" drug company articles without seeing the raw data

Persuasion works best when it's invisible. The most effective marketing worms its way into our consciousness, leaving intact the perception that we have reached our opinions and made our choices independently. As old as humankind itself, over the past few years this approach has been refined

While, in the past, companies have created fake citizens' groups to campaign in favour of trashing forests or polluting rivers, now they create fake citizens. Messages purporting to come from disinterested punters are planted on listservers at critical moments, disseminating misleading information in the hope of recruiting real people to the cause. The next step is to publish flawed evidence, backed by respected scientists.

Detective work by the campaigner Jonathan Matthews and the freelance journalist Andy Rowell shows how a PR firm contracted to the biotech company Monsanto appears to have played a crucial but invisible role in shaping scientific discourse. Recently, one of the world's foremost scientific journals was persuaded to do something it had never done before, and retract a paper it had published.

In recent years, decline in the state funding of research has placed scientists in a vulnerable position which industry is able to exploit. Scientists in all areas of medicine are increasingly dependent on pharmaceutical companies to fund their work. This places the industry in a position to control data and to have papers drafted by company employees. Scientists are offered large fees to put their names to articles which have been ghostwritten by authors paid by the drug company. Researchers who have agreed to put their names to articles based on raw data which they have not seen, were possibly unaware of the consequences. Drug companies involved in court cases over the effects of SSRIs (the family of drugs to which Prozac belongs) have apparently relied in their defence upon such articles, attempting to shuffle responsibility onto the "authors".

Fuller Torrey, executive director of the Stanley Foundation Research Programmes at Bethesda, Maryland said recently, "Some of us believe that the present system is approaching a high-class form of professional prostitution".

Marcia Angell wrote as follows in an editorial for the New England Journal of Medicine: "Researchers serve as consultants to companies whose products they are studying, join advisory boards and speakers' bureaus, enter into patent and royalty arrangements, agree to be the listed authors of articles ghostwritten by interested companies, promote drugs and devices at company-sponsored symposiums, and allow themselves to be plied with expensive gifts and trips to luxurious settings. Many also have equity interest in the companies."

The situation has become so serious that the World Health Organisation has also expressed concern. Dr Jonathan Quick, director of essential drugs and medicines policy at WHO, says the reliability of clinical trials - essential for the development of new drugs - is increasingly imperilled by conflicts of interest, "inappropriate involvement" of sponsors in trial design and management, and bias in publishing the results.

More Information
Sarah Boseley, health editor, Guardian
Scandal of scientists who take money for papers ghostwritten by drug companies
The Guardian Thursday February 7, 2002

Stephan Schwartz
The Schwartz Report

Frances Williams
WHO accuses drugs groups of interference
Financial Times; Dec 18, 2001

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