In a recent and controversial accusation, Elsevier has been questioned about publishing favorable medical reviews of pharmaceutical company Wyeth’s hormone replacement therapy drug. The allegations claim that the medical publishing editors at Elsevier were not unbiased, but received payment from Wyeth. In response to these accusations, Elsevier has launched its own investigation into the legitimacy of the claims.
Senator Charles E. Grassley, Iowa (R) was the person who first questioned the article. As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, Grassley is investigating drug companies’ influence on doctors and contends that Wyeth, the pharmaceutical giant, commissioned ghostwriters to plug its drugs through several academic journals, including perhaps Elsevier.
The Elsevier article in question by Dr. John Eden was published in a May 2003 issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology. Progestins and Breast Cancer (Am J Obstet Gynecol 2003;188:1123-31), stated that drugs such as Wyeth’s Prempro could not be tied to breast cancer as there was “no definitive evidence” that the hormones caused breast cancer. Eden’s article was published a little over a year after a landmark federal study linking Wyeth’s Prempro hormone product to breast cancer.
Eden’s article made no mention of any involvement with Wyeth and according to a recent statement by Wyeth’s spokesperson the academic authors were not paid by the pharmaceutical company and the authors had “substantive editorial control” of the articles. However, Eden did disclose that two people assisted with his article, but not their role with Wyeth. Standard industry requirement mandate the identity of all significant contributors to such articles.
The reason this particular article is causing such a stir among the medical community is that these sort of articles are meant to represent unbiased medical studies. But if one of the authors is on a pharmaceutical company’s payroll then that complicates matters, especially if that author fails to disclose this relationship. Other physicians might take the article at face value and rely on its findings to prescribe the reviewed medication or drug to their patients. These physicians would think they were being informed by an unbiased doctor, but would in fact be reading an article that was in essence written by the pharmaceutical company manufacturing the product.
Government employees and politicians like Senator Grassley are attempting to crack down on pharmaceutical companies who ghostwrite similar articles in reputable medical journals. But it would be wise for medical publishers to take a page from Elsevier and begin their own investigations into similar claims, too, so that we can approach this problem from multiple fronts.