By John Mack
Should pharmaceutical companies appoint employees as Wikipedia "spokespeople" to perform all edits to Wikipedia articles on behalf of the company?
That is the opinion of Bertalan Meskó, MD, founder and managing director of Webicina.com, who, in a June 13, 2012, open letter to pharmaceutical companies, invited them to "employ a Wikipedia editor if you want to make sure only evidence-based information is included in entries about your own products."
Open Letter to Pharma
Dear Pharma Companies,
The place of Wikipedia in the dissemination of medical information online is indisputable now. If you want your customers to access information about your products from the quality perspective and in the simplest way, you have to deal with using Wikipedia.
Based on the pretty negative past encounters between pharma employees and Wikipedia editors (pharma employees trying to edit entries about their own products in a quite non-neutral way), we advise you to employ a Wikipedia editor if you want to make sure only evidence-based information is included in entries about your own products. Appointing someone from within your company as a "spokesperson" in Wikipedia who would perform all edits on behalf of the company is an excellent way to update those entries.
For more details, please see our open access social media guide [see Webicina's "Open Access" Social Media Guidelines for Pharma].
But basically, we, Wikipedians, are more than open to starting a discussion about this with you.
I'm looking forward to working together.
Boehringer Ingelheim responded to Berci via Twitter: "We look for patient safety issues & react. Its important to stick to Wikipedia policies too, so all transparent." But when asked by Berci if BI had posted anything online about this, BI responded "No at this point in time we have not....yet," seemingly leaving the door open.
Recall that PhRMA -- in comments submitted to the FDA (see "Accountability for Pharma Content on Social Media Sites
") -- suggested that manufacturers would welcome correcting misinformation about their products posted to sites like Wikipedia if these corrections were not subject to FDA regulation.
"FDA," said PhRMA, "should confirm formally that, while it is not possible for manufacturers to monitor or correct all inaccurate information about their products on the Internet, such corrections by manufacturers in response to inaccurate postings will not be considered promotional labeling. FDA's adoption of such a policy would thereby allow manufacturers to correct inaccurate information about their medicines on the Internet or social media (e.g., Wikipedia, Sidewiki, blogs, or other websites) if they should become aware of such information."
Pharma does not have a stellar record when it comes to editing Wikipedia articles. According to Patients Not Patents, a group that "challenges the validity of medical patents before the United States Patent and Trademark Office," Abbott Laboratories was a serial Wikipedia tamperer back in 2007. Here's the press release that provided the evidence:
Newly available data show that employees of Abbott Laboratories have been altering entries to Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, to eliminate information questioning the safety of its top-selling drugs.
Selected Tweets from the 15-June-2012 #hcsmeu Chat
In July of 2007, a computer at Abbott Laboratories' Chicago office was used to delete a reference to a Mayo Clinic study that revealed that patients taking the arthritis drug Humira faced triple the risk of developing certain kinds of cancers and twice the risk of developing serious infections. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2006.
The same computer was used to remove articles describing public interest groups' attempt to have Abbott's weight-loss drug Meridia banned after the drug was found to increase the risk of heart attack and stroke in some patients.
The site's editors restored the deleted information, but Abbott's activities illustrate drug companies' eagerness to suppress safety concerns, said Jeffrey Light, Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Patients not Patents. "The argument that drug companies can be trusted to provide adequate safety information on their own products has been used by the pharmaceutical industry to fight against government regulation of consumer advertising. Clearly such trust is misplaced. As Abbott's actions have demonstrated, drug companies will attempt to hide unfavorable safety information when they think nobody is watching."
The changes are part of over one thousand edits made from computers at Abbott's offices. The data was obtained from WikiScanner, an independent site that allows users to look up anonymous changes to Wikipedia articles.