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No academic ghostwriting at EPA

Agency says that in ghostwriting proposal, 'scholarly journals' represent trade publications, not peer-reviewed ones

By | July 27, 2005

Despite suggestions to the contrary, the $5 million the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to spend over the next 5 years on public relations work, including asking outside writers to compose articles about EPA research, will not include ghostwriting for articles published in academic, peer-reviewed journals, the agency said this week.

"The only person who's going to be writing [a] peer-reviewed article is the scientist," EPA spokeswoman Eryn Witcher told The Scientist.

Her assurances appear to contradict an article last week in The New York Times that heavily quoted Donald Kennedy about his attitude toward ghostwritten articles submitted to Science, where he is executive editor-in-chief. "If we knew that [an article] had been written by someone who was not a scientist and submitted as though it were the work of a scientist, we wouldn't take it," Kennedy told the Times.

One of the EPA's requests for proposals also asks public relations firms to "provide research, writing, and editing of [Office of Research and Development] articles for publications in scholarly journals and magazines."

In an interview, EPA's Witcher noted that, in this case, the "scholarly journals" are trade publications, not peer-reviewed journals. "All of the original research is being written by the scientists," she said. Witcher added that TheNew York Times was the first to call the proposal "ghostwriting," and she did not know whether a public relations writer would be listed as an author of upcoming trade stories.

Witcher stressed that "none of this has been done," but the articles will likely be feature stories that describe EPA scientists' research activities, and scientists will always have a final review of every feature before it's published. She added that the agency decided to embark on the public relations project after the EPA's board of scientific counselors recommended that the Office of Research and Development do more to communicate their work. "We have $600 million of research being done, and we want to take less than 1% of that," Witcher said.

But even less than 1% is too much, according to the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). PEER's executive director Jeff Ruch told The Scientist that he believes the agency is trying to boost its image to corporate sponsors, to attract private funding. "This is a diversion of money that should be spent on public health and the environment," he said. He added that the project may even be against the law, since Congress prohibits the use of appropriated funds for publicity.

Witcher countered that the project is completely "in compliance with Congress," and does not violate the publicity rule regarding appropriated funds.

Science's Kennedy told The Scientist that "scholarly publications" is a "strange definition" for trade magazines. "If it's only trade magazines, I would guess that ghosting is a pretty general practice in industry," he said.

David Korn, senior vice president of the division of biomedical and health sciences research at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said that he "would not be surprised" if many articles in trade publications were ghostwritten, and agreed that the EPA should have used another descriptor for trade publications.

"It is the fact that a government agency, whose decisions are supposed to be science-based, would label such [publications] as 'scholarly' that is disturbing," Korn told The Scientist.

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