Ghostwriting Charges and Stonewalling at the American Psychiatric Association

The American Psychiatric Association came under a searchlight this past December over allegations of ghostwriting. The story originated with a public letter from Project on Government Oversight (POGO) to the Director of NIH, and it was picked up by Duff Wilson writing in the New York Times. The book was Recognition and Treatment of Psychiatric Disorders: A Psychopharmacology Handbook for Primary Care. The named authors were Charles Nemeroff, now chairman of psychiatry at the University of Miami, and Alan Schatzberg, formerly chairman of psychiatry at Stanford University. Both are well known for ethical controversy – see here and here. Soon, these allegations were being dissected in the blogosphere, with stellar contributions from Daniel Carlat, 1boringoldman, Ed Silverman, and Alison Bass.

The APA and its publishing arm, known as American Psychiatric Press, Inc. or APPI, came to the defense of the two prominent academic authors over the ghostwriting charge. In particular, an APA employee named Mark Moran authored a denial of the charge in the January 2011 issue of the APA news magazine, Psychiatric News. As the controversy played out, letters from attorneys demanded retractions, and partial qualifications of the original story appeared in the New York Times and on the POGO weblog. There was never any doubt that the heavy lifting was done by a pair of professional writers employed by a medical communications company under a financial grant from a drug company. Nemeroff defended his role by averring that he ‘scrutinized’ the work product of the professional writers. Threatening letters from lawyers for Nemeroff and Schatzberg were publicized, and the APA weighed in.

The coup de grâce was administered by blogger Daniel Carlat’s withering review of the book’s artful construction to highlight the use of the sponsoring company’s antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug in primary care, while muting important information about the drug’s liabilities. Nevertheless, the APA held to its legalistic stance in defense of the ‘authors.’ This behavior is counterproductive for professional medical organizations, as I have discussed before, because it misses the ethical forest for the legal trees.

Now comes the good part. In response to the piece by Mark Moran in Psychiatric News, Leemon McHenry prevailed on Robert Rubin and myself to write with him to the magazine’s editors. Leemon is a faculty member in the Department of Philosophy at California State University, Northridge. He also has experience evaluating legal documents arising in litigation over antidepressant drugs. Robert Rubin has partnered with me in outing several notable ethics compromises involving Nemeroff and Schatzberg, going back as far as 2002, though we always call ourselves equal opportunity critics.

Our letter sent in late January to Dr. Carolyn Robinowitz, the Interim Editor of Psychiatric News, has been posted today on the POGO site. In our letter, we challenged much of Mr. Moran’s defense, and we called attention to what WASN’T in the public domain, despite all the claims and counterclaims. Essentially, the partial qualifications of the original reports that appeared in The New York Times and in the letter to NIH from POGO resulted from the inconclusiveness of some of the documents. We called on the APA to come clean with the release of all relevant materials, in the interest of transparency.

For instance, what WASN’T known were the specifics of the contract involving the corporation, the (ahem) authors, the publisher (APPI), and the medical communications company. Or the money flow to the ‘authors’ from the contract in addition to their royalties. Or the legal release form transferring ownership of the work product to the ‘authors’ and APPI. Or the corporation’s planned marketing activities, given that the corporation ordered 10,000 copies of the book. Or the correspondence among all parties that might reveal who actually did what.

Leemon McHenry’s perspective is that this hidden layer of documents may well be available if they could be unsealed in pending litigation. Naturally, corporations and their attorneys strive to keep the information hidden. But our general point is that the APA has a different duty – which is to transparency rather than to stonewalling. Did the APA do that? Sadly, no, they did not. Here is the curt reply from the Executive Editor Catherine Brown denying publication of our letter after a delay of almost 8 weeks. Now that’s what I call stonewalling.