Over the years in this business, I’ve found that the general public rarely thinks about ghostwriting — when someone [often a busy executive or celebrity] hires someone else to write in his or her name. Most people assume that when your name is attached to an article, you’re the one who wrote it.
As a professional writer and editor, I know that’s not true many times, but neither does the practice generally bother me. Honestly, if the CEO were spending a lot of time fiddling with the “Message from the Home Office” in the newsletter you get every month, I’d say his or her priorities were out of whack.
But wow, this article in the New York Times today really caught me off guard. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for drug companies to author papers that researchers then submit under their own names to scientific journals.
I can be pretty cynical. I watch The Daily Show. I know how corporate America works. But this one caught even me off guard.
So, we can sum up why this is wrong in a pretty simple manner: When the drug company is writing the article but putting an independent researcher’s name on it, they’re failing to disclose their bias. Perhaps that’s a good test for when it’s OK to have a ghostwriter and when it has to come from the source in other areas, as well.
Are we failing to reveal a bias if the CEO has someone in marketing write his monthly column in the newsletter? No. Presumably, the CEO and the marketing department are singing from the same page of the hymnal.
Related: Should newspapers, magazines and bloggers make it clear when they received a free copy of a book or record to review? Absolutely. While the potential for bias is small, it should be transparent. This is part of the reason why Consumer Reports is in business. By purchasing everything they rate at market prices, they eliminate even a whiff of bias from their reviews.
In the corporate world, we often don’t think twice about ghostwriting. But it’s critical to ensure that our customers know exactly who’s talking. Many large corporations have learned this lesson the hard way in the past few years, as the Internet creates a heretofore-unknown level of transparency. Make sure you’ll be comfortable if the real writer is revealed.