The Ethics of Medical Writing

Many people have an expertise or an interest. Some are natural writers, while others might be innate scientists. So is it reasonable for society to expect scientific professionals to be expert writers as well? Some, including myself, would argue that this is certainly not reasonable. I must honestly say that as an English major I know very little about science and therefore wouldn’t expect a science major to know much about writing. Roman rhetorician Cicero would agree; even he recognized that just as orators can’t know everything, neither can professionals in other fields. According to a recent visiting PWR speaker, this is why the involvement of professional medical writers in the sciences is essential.

You may be wondering, what is a medical writer? At an interdisciplinary speaking event on February 20 titled “Writing/Science, Science/Writing: Stories from the Field,” medical writer and President of Whitsell Innovations, Inc., Robin Whitsell, introduced a group of about 35 Elon students to the idea and how she came to be a medical writer. Before founding Whitsell Innovations, Ms. Whitsell interned as a researcher but quickly realized working in a lab just wasn’t for her. She loved science and, more specifically, the process of writing up results. After spending a few years teaching abroad and then working as an assistant director of preclinical and clinical development for 5 years at a pharmaceutical start-up, she decided to market her writing abilities even further by starting the firm.

Whitsell Innovations is a technical and medical writing firm that specializes in writing submission documents for regulatory agencies including the FDA, and in authoring scientific manuscripts on behalf of their clients.

According to Ms. Whitsell, it has been a concern for decades that pharmaceutical companies may not fully disclose their research but instead provide medical writers with cherry-picked data, specifically selected to only highlight positive results that would bring them closer to realizing their goals and falsely shape the writer’s perception of the case at hand. Even if the data was not manipulated in this way, to anyone looking at the situation from a humanities perspective, the practice of using medical writers seems unethical. It just doesn’t seem right to use the name of leading researchers and key opinion leaders to propel influence even when they haven’t written the reports themselves. This practice has been popular and widely accepted in the field.

Based on a definition Ms. Whitsell provided of ethics, one must question what’s really most important as far as this issue is concerned. She defined ethics as “the continuous process of bringing into alignment our calling and our conduct.” With that in mind, is it reasonable or necessary to require that a scientist, whose calling is clearly in the field of science, to excel in anything other than science? Clearly the chemist’s calling was to bring forward more knowledge about chemistry, and not necessarily publish, so shouldn’t it be okay for him to use the service of medical writers?

The Greek rhetorician we all know and love, Aristotle, would ask us to question what does the most good for the most people? At first, the thought of writing a piece only for someone else to be praised for it bothered me, but I can’t help it because my opinion does come from a humanities perspective. When considering Aristotle’s philosophy on utilitarianism though, I changed my view. Publishing under the name of a well respected researcher brings prestige to both the university or company involved and the research being conducted. Greater prestige encourages more grants and funding, which in turn increases the chance of potentially revolutionary drugs and products being introduced to the public and helping people. It seems like more people benefit from having the knowledge released, which has been enough justification for those in scientific professions to continue to working with medical writers.

Professional writing and rhetoric is not a field that exits on its own. The rhetorical strategies a professional writer is equipped with can be applied in a variety of fields. Science is not exempt. The data and research they produce needs to be communicated to an audience, and professional writers can assist scientists to do just that.


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