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A Ghostwriter Speaks

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Aug 15, 2011 4:20 PMNov 5, 2019 12:15 AM


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PLoS ONE offers the confessions of a former medical ghostwriter: Being the Ghost in the Machine.

The article (which is open access and short, so well worth a read) explains how Linda Logdberg became a medical writer; what excited her about the job; what she actually did; and what made her eventually give it up.

Ghostwriting of course has a bad press at the moment and it's recently been banned by some leading research centres. Ghostwriting certainly is concerning, because of what it implies about the process leading up the publication.

However, it doesn't create bad science. A bad paper is bad because of what it says, not because of who (ghost)wrote it. Real scientists can write bad papers without a ghostwriter's help.

When pharmaceutical companies pay a ghostwriter, they are not doing this to get access to special dark arts that real scientists are innocent of. As far as I can see, it's just more efficient to use a specialist writer to do your scientific sins, when you're doing it all the time.

Rather like every evil sorcerer has an apprentice to do the day-to-day work of sacrificing animals and mixing potions.

Logdberg says:

My career came to an end over a job involving revising a manuscript supporting the use of a drug for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), with a duration of action that fell between that of shorter- and longer-acting formulations.

However, I have two children with ADHD, and I failed to see the benefit of a drug that would wear off right at suppertime, rather than a few hours before or a few hours after. Suppertime is a time in ADHD households when tempers and homework arguments are often at their worst.

...Attempts to discuss my misgivings with the [medical] contact met with the curt admonition to ‘‘just write it.’’ But perhaps because this particular disorder was so close to home, I was unwilling to turn this ugly duckling of a ‘‘me-too’’ drug into a marketable swan.Many scientists will recall being in that kind of situation, albeit in a different context.

When writing a grant application, for example, you are almost literally trying to sell your proposed research to the awarding committee, on several levels. You need to sell the importance of the scientific question; the likely practical benefits of the research; the chance of success using your methods; what makes you the right person to do this work, and so on.

Writing a paper is much the same, although in this case you're selling research you've already done, and the data you collected.

Turning ugly ducklings into fundable, or publishable, swans, is part and parcel of modern science. Of course, the ducklings are not always as ugly as in the case Logdberg describes, but they are rarely as beautiful as they eventually end up.

Logdberg, L. (2011). Being the Ghost in the Machine: A Medical Ghostwriter's Personal View PLoS Medicine, 8 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001071

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