As I See It: Ghostwriting

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Paul Thacker
Paul Thacker

In early March, the University of Pennsylvania released their findings regarding allegations of ghostwriting against two academics. In a statement to Nature, Penn argued, “While current journal and [university] policy call for the acknowledgement of the assistance of a medical writer... guidelines in place in 2001 did not.”

The claim set off howls of laughter. Two academics who track research misconduct labeled it the “George Costanza Defense,” after an episode of Seinfeld. After his boss finds out that Costanza had a dalliance on his desk, Costanza has to explain himself.

Says Costanza: “Should I not have done that? I gotta tell ya, I gotta plead ignorance on this one. Because if anyone had said anything to me when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon....'Cause I've worked in a lot of offices and let me tell you, people do that all the time.”

“You're fired,” answers his boss.

But not at Penn. Apparently, unless the rules explicitly prohibit a specific type of unethical behavior, you're OK. What makes it completely mind blowing is that Penn's President is Amy Gutmann, who fashions herself an expert on bioethics. She even heads up a commission on bioethics for President Obama.

At issue is a paper written by a medical communications firm on behalf of GlaxoSmithKline and published under the names of Penn researchers in the in a 2001 edition of The American Journal of Psychiatry.

We should expect and demand better answers from our leaders. Ms. Gutmann has played a legalistic game of ignoring obviously unethical behavior to stave off controversy on her campus. But the result is making herself into a character fit for comedy.

Paul Thacker, a former investigator for Sen. Charles Grassley, is an investigative reporter based in Washington, DC.
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