Dr. Karen Woolley is the first AMWA keynote speaker in my experience who is one of us--a medical writer. And what a medical writer she is! In addition to running a large medical writing firm based in Australia, she is internationally engaged in advancing our profession through teaching, research, and advocacy for higher educational and ethical standards.
In her talk Thursday, Karen outlined 3 major problems facing medical writers, especially those of us who work on journal manuscripts:
• Lack of evidence that we add value to our projects and are ethical
• Lack of a truly international approach to training
• Isolation from other stakeholders, particularly journal editors
For each problem, she suggested actions that the profession can take and actions that individual members can take.
To address the first problem, Karen urged members to compete for the new award AMWA created for original research by AMWA members. The research must explore the value added by medical writers and editors and must be published in a peer-reviewed journal indexed by PubMed. The winner will receive a $2000 honorarium. (For more information, look under "What's New?" on the AMWA home page.) Aside from competing for that award and the new student research award, individuals can help by learning the rules of medical publishing, especially the AMWA Position Statement, Good Publication Practice for Pharmaceutical Companies (soon to be updated), and the Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts.
Even more emphatically, Karen called on us to reject ghostwriting assignments, because short-term financial gain for individuals is creating long-term professional pain for everyone in the profession. “That has got to stop,” she said. She urged us to use the PLoS Medicine checklist to document the specifics of our collaborations with authors.
As part of formal research, Karen and colleagues have investigated manuscript retraction rates to identify contributing factors. They presented some of this research at last month’s 6th International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication. One critical issue, Karen believes, is lack of training in medical writing. Effective training needs to be available globally, given that clinical trials are booming in sites such as China and India.
Noting on her slides that poorly trained medical writers (anywhere!) affect ALL of us, Karen suggested that AMWA create an international certificate, separate from the Core certificate. An ethics component should be compulsory, and to accommodate people who cannot travel to AMWA conferences, the certificate should be available online, with an examination required. So that the poor state of medical writing in low- and middle-income countries can be redressed quickly, the certificate should require fewer workshops than the Core and allow people to complete it in 1 year.
Karen also discussed a medical writing competency tool that she uses in hiring for her business. She challenged AMWA members to debate the merits of an international certificate and to conduct a trial of the competency model or tools like it.
To address medical writers’ isolation, Karen proposed the creation of an International Committee of Professional Medical Writers, analogous to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, that could speak with one voice when issues arise. At the local level, she suggested, AMWA chapters should start building relationships with journal editors and journalists, one at a time -- never uttering the word “ghostwriter.” Ever more after today, she implored, let us call ourselves professional medical writers.