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Credit: Alexandra Fleischman , , ,

“It shouldn’t take a letter to the President of the United States to spur Penn to act,” Paul Thacker said. “But that’s just where we’re at right now in plagiarism involving a professor.”

Thacker is an investigator for the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group that asked President Barack Obama last month to remove Penn President Amy Gutmann as chair of his Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

The request came soon after the Department of Health and Human Services launched an investigation into charges of research misconduct levied by a Penn professor against five other researchers, including two of his colleagues in Penn’s Psychiatry department.

The researchers are accused of claiming authorship of a ghostwritten paper — one that has been written by someone else without giving due credit — about a drug manufactured by the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. According to the charge, the paper was drafted by a company hired by GSK itself.

“No reasonable person can justify” academic ghostwriting, said Eric Campbell, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “To claim you did something when you didn’t is a fundamental violation of one of the tenets [of research].”

Corporate-funded medical ghostwriting can have especially negative effects.

“The entity that’s being represented [in a ghostwritten medical article] is a corporate view, and that influence is unseen,” said Adriane Fugh-Berman, a professor of pharmacology at Georgetown University. “There are marketing messages that are included.”

Medical ghostwriting is not an uncommon occurrence; in 2009, The Journal of the American Medical Association surveyed authors of 630 medical articles in top journals, 7.8 percent of whom anonymously admitted to omitting names of significant contributors.

“It’s not a rare phenomenon,” said Mildred Cho, the associate director of Stanford University’s Center for Biomedical Ethics. “So in many ways I’m not surprised [it may have happened at Penn].”

But what especially galls Thacker is that POGO accused one of the Penn professors currently under investigation — Dwight Evans, chairman of the department of psychiatry — of ghostwriting once before.

Penn stood by Evans when he was initially accused at the end of last year. “We believe that the allegations of ghostwriting made by POGO … are unfounded,” Penn Medicine spokeswoman Susan Phillips wrote in a statement at the time.

Thacker now questions the thoroughness of Penn’s internal investigation conducted at that time. “This is an issue of very serious concern that was brushed aside in just 72 hours,” he said. “The idea that Penn was able to pull a serious inquiry in the matter was just wrong.”

Berman, too, was struck by how quickly Penn came to Evans’ support. “It does not seem like the school’s taken a strong stand on [the ghostwriting charge],” she said. “With the original case, they just said that the allegation was unfounded. That’s implausible. There’s documentation.”

Phillips wrote in a statement that a review of the recent charges of research misconduct are currently underway and defended the investigation last year.

“The inquiry made last year by POGO regarding a single article was taken seriously by the medical school and the University, and was reviewed appropriately at that time,” she wrote.

But for what POGO sees as Penn and Gutmann’s initial failure to respond to ghostwriting on campus, the organization is calling on Obama to remove her from her post on the bioethics commission.

“If this happens over and over again, it does raise questions,” Campbell said of the ghostwriting accusations. “Failure to take those [accusations] seriously does raise concerns about anyone’s ability to serve as an advisor to the president.”

Cho, however, is skeptical of POGO’s request. “I don’t think there’s a reason she should have to step down,” Cho said, as long as Gutmann followed the proper protocol.

But POGO remains committed to its crusade.

“The buck needs to stop with her,” Thacker said of Gutmann. “So that’s why we made her the issue this time.”

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