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Scientific communication or ghostwriting?

In medical science reporting, ghostwriting has a bad rep.  Deservedly so, in many cases.  Why is this so?  The term “ghostwriting” is used to describe much too wide a range of activities; some ethical, some not so much.  On the ethical end of the spectrum, it seems reasonable, even responsible, to engage an expert writer/scientist to help write new research articles with researchers who recognize that writing is not their forte, or who do not have the time to devote to creating a well-developed, easily-understood manuscript. As long as the motive is to communicate the science in the clearest possible manner, this kind of medical writing should be applauded.  Should such a scientific writer be recognized as an author or simply as the technical writer depends on their overall contribution to the effort.  If they contributed ideas, or perhaps assisted in analyzing the data, they should rightly be considered a contributing author.  If they simply made the information clear and understandable, perhaps they should be acknowledged as the technical writer of the article.  In either case, they are providing a valuable service.

On the less than ethical end of the spectrum, there are two types of actual ghostwriting that should be exposed and decried whenever recognized.  First is the situation in which an individual or team affiliated with a manufacturer of medical products writes an article favorable to the manufacturer’s product, then pays or otherwise induces a well-known physician to submit it for publication under his/her own name to enhance its credibility.  A complementary situation arises when a physician working for a medical products manufacturer (or perhaps receiving royalties for a product concept) requests that his name not be added to the author list to minimize the appearance of conflict of interest.  Both situations obscure the truth and do not add clarity to presenting the science.

Perhaps the term “ghostwriting” should be reserved to describe this darker side of scientific publication.  Those involved in the laudable activity of communicating science and medicine in a clear, understandable, unbiased manner may be known as medical writers or technical writers engaged in scientific communication.

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