McGill clears professor of academic fraud

Barbara Sherwin reprimanded for one of three allegations

Correction appended – Tuesday, Sep 20

After concluding an investigation into McGill psychology professor Barbara Sherwin’s alleged academic fraud, the University has officially reprimanded her for failing to acknowledge a ghostwriter involved in drafting one of her articles.

The decision, which amounts to a censure, spares Sherwin from a harsher punishment, such as sanctions or suspension.

A McGill internal review committee investigated three allegations made against Sherwin in relation to an article she published in a 2000 edition of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. First, that she had participated in ghostwriting, second, that she had an untoward relationship with a pharmaceutical company, and third, that she failed to acknowledge assistance with the article. The committee cleared her of the first two allegations.

McGill’s investigation began in August 2009 after Sherwin’s name was brought up in a class action lawsuit against pharmaceutical company Wyeth, which has since been bought by Pfizer. In the case, 8,400 women claimed they were hurt by the hormone replacement therapy (HRT) drugs the company sold. The women’s lawyers also claimed that there had been insufficient information given about the potential harm of the drug.

According to a Maclean’s article published in May, Wyeth paid DesignWrite to produce articles on HRT, asking leading academics to sign their names to them, and then publish them in academic journals.

Sherwin was one of the academics mentioned in the case, prompting the allegations that she had both participated in ghostwriting and had been involved in an inappropriate relationship with a pharmaceutical company.

Sherwin has publicly admitted failure to properly acknowledge the assistance she received from DesignWrite.

Richard Janda, a McGill Law professor who advised Sherwin throughout McGill’s investigation, described how Sherwin “continues to be used as an example of how there are problematic relationships between corporations and universities.”

“If anything, this is a professor that has been scrupulous and almost paranoid about having involvement with pharmaceutical companies,” said Janda.

“She has always refused to take products even if it’s a matter of use in research. She has not taken drugs from pharmaceutical companies. She has not had sponsorship by pharmaceutical companies for her own work. She only had public funds for her own work.”

According to Janda, Sherwin never knew of the relationship between Wyeth and DesignWrite, who often do not disclose that they are working for pharmaceutical companies.

“If she had been asked to promote [the HRT drugs], bells would have gone off, but since that’s not what she was doing, there were no alarm bells that went off,” Janda said.

The article was a comprehensive, peer-reviewed paper, considering a range of possible treatments for cognitive disorders, including both hormonal and non-hormonal treatments.

In regards to whether or not a DesignWrite employee had ghostwritten Sherwin’s article, Sherwin told Maclean’s she offered editorial credit to DesignWrite employee Karen Mittleman – who typed and formatted Sherwin’s manuscript to fit the style of the journal – but Mittleman refused.

DesignWrite defends its position. Rosie Lynch, the CEO of DesignWrite, explained in an email to The Daily that Sherwin “authored an article that was medically and scientifically accurate and valid.  We assisted her in writing and editing the article, which was common practice in the industry.  She had control over the final product and final approval over the article. The article was published by independent peer reviewed journals that were completely autonomous in their decision to publish the article based on its scientific merit.”

When asked whether or not Sherwin was aware of the relationship between DesignWrite and Wyeth, Lynch replied, “The editorial assistance we provided to Dr. Sherwin was common practice in the industry and we have never had an author express any confusion in this regard.”

She did admit that Wyeth paid DesignWrite “to assist Dr. Sherwin with writing and editing the article,” but also stated that journals were never paid to publish the article.

In an email to The Daily, Sherwin said she had been advised “to not communicate with anyone in the media for the time being.”

Doug Sweet, McGill Director of Media Relations, said the University was not commenting on the investigation.

Due to editorial errors, the printed version of this article (News, Sep 8, pg. 4) contains several innaccuracies, which accounted certain facts in an erroneous manner and incorrectly portrayed Professor Sherwin.

We, the editors and writers of the McGil Daily, would like to sincerely apologize to Professor Sherwin for the printing of said article and any harm that may have been caused to her. We deeply regret our actions. We are reviewing our internal procedures to ensure a similar event does not occur in the future.

The following highlights the errors and corrections of the September 8, 2011 article: The article incorrectly identifies the nature of Professor Sherwin’s misconduct in the subhead; she was not reprimanded for falsely crediting her article. The article also incorrectly identifies the nature of Professor Sherwin’s misconduct in the article; she was not reprimanded for failing to acknowledge a co-author, but, rather, for failing to acknowledge Karen Mittleman’s assistance with the 2000 article. The printed article referred to Professor Sherwin’s reprimand as a ‘public censure’; this is technically inaccurate, as the University did not make their decision public. The article also identified Provost Anthony Masi as leading the internal review committee; such information is confidential and could not be confirmed.The article misrepresented the content of Sherwin’s article; the article dealt with a range of pharmacological treatment options for mild cognitive impairment, not Hormone Replacement Therapy, as the article stated. DesignWrite’s role in drafting the article was misrepresented; Designwrite provided modest editorial assistance to Sherwin. Professor Janda was paraphrased as stating that Professor Sherwin was “under emotional strain”; he did not comment specifically on her emotional state. The Daily regrets the errors.