15 December 2015

Per Aspenberg, professor of orthopaedics, thought he was invited to an academic meeting with the world’s most prominent osteoporosis researchers. After arriving at the luxury hotel in Geneva, he found out that an American company was behind it all.

“My impression was that everyone at the meeting made an effort to deliver good news regarding the company, AgNovos Healthcare and their product,” says Professor Aspenberg, who has published a feature article in the British Medical Journal entitled How I was nearly duped into “authoring” a fake paper.

How did you react when you were invited to this exclusive meeting?
I was happy and flattered, but became puzzled when I heard I was supposed to speak about “currently available orthopaedic procedures for bone enhancement”. Because no such procedures exist. But one week before the meeting I received an email from a “medical writer”, attaching a synopsis where I said that a certain type of treatment was ”gaining momentum”.

What sort of treatment were you supposed to recommend?
A method where you inject bone cement into the thigh bone to make it stronger. The only scientific study I could find on this had been conducted on cadavers. The idea is that the cement will break down after a few years and be replaced by new bone – quite an absurd idea.

Lake GenevaIn any case, you attended the meeting at a five-star hotel in Geneva. What happened?
There were nine participants, but in addition three representatives from AgNovos Healthcare appeared. I said that my presentation could be cancelled, as there is no evidence for any prophylactic methods. But I gave my presentation; for 45 minutes I explained why prophylactic surgery is unrealistic. I was the only speaker with any sort of surgical background. Then one of the hosts of the meeting – a world-leading osteoporisis researcher – presented AgNovos’ product and how it could be developed. Finally the company got advice from the researchers on how the idea could be marketed. After four hours, including lunch and two coffee breaks, the meeting ended.

How was the meeting documented?
The ghost writer was going to write a “scientific” article, with all of us as authors. One of the organisers of the meeting is editor for an influential osteoporosis journal, where the article was to be published. In mid July the draft of the article arrived. “Prophylactic surgery”, in particular AgNovos’ method, was described as promising. My points, for instance that the risks were likely greater than the benefits, were not included. The article was false. I asked to be removed from the author list, and this request was granted.

What consequences could this have for your future research?
The meeting co-chairs are very influential people with huge networks, so I might have difficulty getting my articles published. But the risk would have been greater if I had been an osteoporosis researcher, rather than an orthopaedist.

What is the worst thing about this story?
What upsets me most is the attitudes in these cliques; they live in a bubble and have lost touch with research ethics. Concrete evidence of this is this “academic” meeting that results in a draft where the conclusions have been pre-written in collaboration with a corporate actor.

The article in the British Medical Journal