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Systematic review on the primary and secondary reporting of the prevalence of ghostwriting in the medical literature
  1. Serina Stretton
  1. ProScribe—Envision Pharma Group, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Serina Stretton; serina.stretton{at}


Background Ghostwriting of industry-sponsored articles is unethical and is perceived to be common practice.

Objective To systematically review how evidence for the prevalence of ghostwriting is reported in the medical literature.

Data sources MEDLINE via PubMed 1966+, EMBASE 1966+, The Cochrane Library 1988+, Medical Writing 1998+, The American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) Journal 1986+, Council of Science Editors Annual Meetings 2007+, and the Peer Review Congress 1994+ were searched electronically (23 May 2013) using the search terms ghostwrit*, ghostauthor*, ghost AND writ*, ghost AND author*.

Eligibility criteria All publication types were considered; only publications reporting a numerical estimate of possible ghostwriting prevalence were included.

Data extraction Two independent reviewers screened the publications; discrepancies were resolved by consensus. Data to be collected included a numerical estimate of the prevalence of possible ghostwriting (primary outcome measure), definitions of ghostwriting reported, source of the reported prevalence, publication type and year, study design and sample population.

Results Of the 848 publications retrieved and screened for eligibility, 48 reported numerical estimates for the prevalence of possible ghostwriting. Sixteen primary publications reported findings from cross-sectional surveys or descriptive analyses of published articles; 32 secondary publications cited published or unpublished evidence. Estimates on the prevalence of possible ghostwriting in primary and secondary publications varied markedly. Primary estimates were not suitable for meta-analysis because of the various definitions of ghostwriting used, study designs and types of populations or samples. Secondary estimates were not always reported or cited correctly or appropriately.

Conclusions Evidence for the prevalence of ghostwriting in the medical literature is limited and can be outdated, misleading or mistaken. Researchers should not inflate estimates using non-standard definitions of ghostwriting nor conflate ghostwriting with other unethical authorship practices. Editors and peer reviewers should not accept articles that incorrectly cite or interpret primary publications that report the prevalence of ghostwriting.

  • systematic review
  • ghostwriting
  • authorship

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