Saturday, April 26, 2008

Hypocritic Oath

In December 2004, I interviewed with Merck for a position. I was flown out for an interview to their research division in New Jersey. I spent the whole day meeting various individuals. I had finished my doctorate earlier that year and I thought I would be a good fit in a pharmaceutical research department doing medical research and publishing.

I got asked how important publishing was to me. I said I enjoyed research and publishing was another step in the process of disseminating findings to the larger academic and lay community- so yes, it was important. Great, said they. Unlike academia, I was told, the process of getting research funded was not a big issue at Merck. As long as I worked up an idea well and could show justification for it, the money could always be found- I wouldn't have to go through the kind of onerous process that grant-writing in academia usually involves.

But how important, I was asked, was it to me that I get credit for the research I carried out. I must have looked a little non-plussed as it is not a question one prepares for. I said well, in collaborative research, all contributors should be acknowledged. Someone must have realized that I was quite clueless where all this was heading and laid it out for me in two ways.

1. I was told that most Merck studies were carried out in-house but then suitable medical doctors were found to be added on as main authors. They may have helped in, say, recruiting their patients or maybe contributed in some other indirect way or maybe were an acknowledged area expert in that topic who did not contribute in anyway. It was a quid-pro-quo. The doctor (usually an academic) got their name on a publication, always a good thing, and the Merck employees got the satisfaction of knowing it was their study as well as plenty of financial remuneration- certainly more than any academic job could provide.

2. I was told that one way to tell who the real author of a study is to phone all the authors from the top, one by one. Only one of them, perhaps listed toward the end, could give you details of the study design, the statistical analysis and the results. That was the real lead of the study and that person would be a bona fide Merck employee (in other words, that person would be on the books as an employee of Merck). The first author (the medical doctor) may have contributed to the editing of the final paper but doesn't have any role in running the study or writing up the results; and they certainly were not listed on Merck's payroll.

I was told that while the research itself was top-notch, due to the nature of the industry and the research environment, it was expedient to find more credible authors as the venues for publication were the world's top medical journals. A few weeks after the interview, I got a job offer. It paid better than my two other options- a post-doctoral fellowship and a tenure-track position at a state university. While a part of me knew that it would be a career-path that would mean fewer worries about finances, another part of me doubted whether I could actually be happy in a position where I would have to be "flexible" to justify the ethicality of what I was doing.
I ended up deciding against it and having other options was probably a key factor in that decision. There have been recent "revelatory" pieces in the news which have "outed" Merck as having written studies for doctors. The pharmaceutical industry is a huge money-making machine with scarce concern for the consumers of the medicines being churned out. Bad drugs put on the market; studies showing ill-effects cut short or scraped under the carpet; doctors invited to "educational" cruises...and now this. Why are we even surprised at this chicanery after all that has already transpired in the last few years?

[Click on picture for credits.]

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