After word got out about those researchers from Brown, Emery, Harvard and Yale who were accused of signing their names to ghostwritten articles (posted in medical journals), many started questioning the penalties that would be involved. That is perhaps why an article that was recently published in the journal PLoS Medicine has gotten so much attention.

In the article, the authors express what they believe are some of the legal penalties that could (or should) be applied to those academics whose actions have been considered fraudulent at the least. An example of this type of fraud can be found in the case from 2011 wherein a psychology professor from the University of Pennsylvania accused some of his colleagues of signing their names to a ghostwritten article that was written on behalf of the controversial drug Paxil, which has since been the subject of many lawsuits over the drug’s side effects (which include aggressive thoughts and behavior, suicidal thoughts and behavior, birth defects and others).

By many in the medical community, this action by the professors is nothing short of fraud. Bijan Esfandiari, who is one of the authors of the article in PLoS Medicine, says, “By lending his name, the author is contributing to fraud, and the ghostwriter is involved in the conspiracy as well.”

Esfandiari’s co-authors include Xavier A. Bosch, who is a professor in the department of medicine at the University of Barcelona, and Leemon McHenry, who is a lecturer and specialist in bioethics in the philosophy department at California State University at Northridge.

Esfandiari believes that because of these ghostwritten articles, doctors are being given potentially dangerous information about the risk-to-benefit ratios of drugs like Paxil that encourages them to prescribe the drugs. The doctors do so believing that the information contained in the articles are written by reputable medical authors. What the doctors don’t realize is that often times, the reputable “authors” of these articles may not have even read it before singing their names to it. This is why Esfandiari and his colleagues believe that these medical academics should be held legally liable for their actions by product liability lawyers.

“We’re putting out a novel theory. It hasn’t been tested yet. But I’m sure lawyers will, if the practice doesn’t stop,” Esfandiari says.

Other consequences for these so-called fraudulent actions (which haven’t been pursued in court yet) may be even worse. For example, the real authors and their ‘ghost counterparts’ could be charged by the U.S. government under the federal False Claims Act on the grounds that Medicare uses these journal articles when it decides which drugs will get reimbursements. Finally, authors and their ghost counterparts could also be charged with committing violations against the federal anti-kickback statute, which prevents drug companies from offering doctors and medical researchers money to endorse their products.

Esfandiari and his colleagues are hopeful that these types of penalties and charges could help to prevent the ghostwriting to continue in the future. As in the case against the ghostwriters of the Paxil article, none of these measures has been pursued as of yet, but with any luck, patients who have been given the drugs by doctors who followed the information posted in the ghostwritten article may be able to pursue the matter in the future.